Those of you familiar with Showtime’s Weeds might already have rubbed aural elbows with Spirit Kid (A.K.A. Emeen Zarookian, the man with the most fabulous name in the universe) via an online only promo video (see below) that lifts his madly catchy and jangly Ampeater A-side “You Lit Up For Me” and gleefully reinterprets the lyrics in a way that you need only stare at the song title for two seconds to guess at. In fact, the song is secretly an elegy to a lost and puddle-killed cell phone (think about it: you fell down / out of my pocket and into the sea / you lit up for me), and this contrast between the hidden, mundane inspiration and the perfectly open ended lyrics is a perfect distillation of Spirit Kid. “You Lit Up For Me” is a perfect, concise pop song, recorded with a warm, full and just slightly muddy sound that sounds both musically and tonally straight out of 1965 (Zarookian lists the Beatles, Kinks, Beach Boys, and Zombies as influences and let me tell you, you can hear it in the best way) and yet with a secretly contemporary source. Who among us doesn’t know the anxiety of a lost cell phone? Who would think to write a song about it? Meet the Spirit Kid, a man who, in his own words, is trying to capture “a child-like willingness to experience the world with open eyes and a open heart, something that many of us, including me, often let slip away with our own daily problems.”
Spirit Kid songs are short and crammed to bursting with ideas. They stand in direct opposition to anything even remotely shaggy, as sharply dressed as those aforementioned English pop heroes of the sixties. They would sound surgical if they weren’t so damned fun, performed with a charming looseness that belies the years this album has been in the making. You can hear lord knows how many Emmens shouting “I miss you terribly” on “You Lit Up For Me” in a big, bawling chorus of voices that you’d never hear on a more cleanly produced (read: sterile) album. It’s the kind of shouty vocal harmony that’s not supposed to be perfectly in harmony. There’s a thickness to this kind of sound that autotune can never reach with its unnecessary clarity (nothing against autotune, which can clearly be used to do some cool shit but should never, ever be applied to the vocals in a guitars-bass-drums-catchysongs kind of rock band). Album cut “Wait A Minute” pretty much dissolves halfway through in a pile of full kit crashes and guitar solos before popping back into the bubbly country pop verses. The fact that Zarookian recorded this entire record himself (with mixing help from Jack Younger of 247 Studios) in bedrooms, bathrooms, basement rec rooms, graffiti-covered practice spaces, etc., etc., lends the whole thing a warmth and relaxed energy that just doesn’t materialize in albums constructed in imposing studios.
Though Zarookian’s musical roots lie mostly in the tight (bounce-a-quarter-off-that-song tight) mod pop of decades hence, he has cousins in recent times as well. Dr. Dog, especially on their near-flawless Easybeat, drew from some of the same pools, bringing back the big vocal harmonies and fluid, traditional harmony that makes Lennon/Mccartney songs sound so endlessly inventive and yet perfectly logical. That style of harmony (which incidentally is a huge part of why all those girl group pop songs that came out of the Brill Building are so amazing, when you combine it with the whole Phil Spector production style) is mostly neglected these days in favor of a minimalist diatonic (read: boring, two chords, maybe three) kind of thing.
Another musical relative is Elliott Smith, who you can hear in the ascending bridge of B-side “My Imagination”, in the way the melody on another album track (“The World Doesn’t Stop”) resolves down a half step instead of the expected whole step, in the pure melody of the guitar solos, in the tight vocal harmonies and use of fancy little diminished passing chords, and who of course played all the instruments on his first few albums much in the way Zarookian does here. But don’t let that make you think the attitude here is anything but joyous or the playing anything but accomplished. The drumming is propulsive and never shaky, pushing the piano riff of “My Imagination” forward with enough force to make it sound like a lost Big Star cut. The bass playing deserves 1000 words on its own, generating enough melodies to make about three more records. Check out the way it navigates the modulating half-time section of the bridge of “My Imagination”, just spitting out ideas left and right. The piano hits hard and nails the obligatory giant glissandos at the climaxes. The vocals, as mentioned, perfectly pin down all the harmonies, for example the echoing I get scareds or ooh la la las in the second verse of “My Imagination”.
“You Lit Up For Me”, the aforementioned A-side, is a perfectly crafted pop gem, with crescendoing mobs of voices over the kind of loping country feel that shows up on a few of the other album tracks, here trading off with more reserved, open interludes. The way the vocals build and build up into an avalanche that tumbles right into the rolling, jouncing percussion of the verses is the most immediate evidence of Spirit Kid’s genius for that long stretched and bruised art form: the song. The multiple layers of vocals that emerge after each extended verse chord are perfect, pure momentum, leaping in each time you think the chord just has to change. It’s the kind of song you want to listen to whilst cutting down the street on a sunny Sunday afternoon with not much on your mind, maybe on your way out to get some brunch, preferably on repeat.
“My Imagination” is more complex, with more sections and more of those fantastic bass lines climbing all over the place like kids on a jungle gym. The song itself is great, catchy, full of motion, but even more than that there are the endless tiny touches of idiosyncrasy, the kind of thing that makes albums like, say, Pet Sounds so amazing and permanently listenable. The way the bass doesn’t seriously enter until that ballsy fill around 11 seconds; the aforementioned ooh la la las, the way that every drum break on that minor chord comes back not on the one but a half beat early, the constant shifting of drum feels, the modulations and modulations of the bridge rising all the way into the triumphant falsetto, the drum fill at 2:15, the call and response of the harmony vocals just after that (“not tough”), the phasered “my my my imagination” over the ending. There is so much in these songs. I could keep going, too, though for practical reasons (read: boredom) I will spare you.
The great thing, for you, for me, for the Spirit Kid, is that these songs are A) so intoxicatingly enjoyable that it takes no effort whatsoever to just nod your head and think yes and B) so well arranged and interestingly built that you can sit here and write, oh, I dunno, 1259 words on them and there will still be more and more and more to say. It’s a shame it looks like the album’s going to be coming out in the winter, because it really deserves to be the soundtrack to your next summer. Those of you in New Zealand take note.