We cannot always judge a book by its cover, nor an album on its artwork. I know this from experience, as all record collectors surely do. I’ve purchased countless cheap records completely unheard, based upon their promising cover art, only to cringe when my needle hit the wax and the hideous sounds of Air Supply-esque wuss-wave spewed from the speakers. Conversely, sometimes an uninspired cover can actually hide a surprisingly excellent record. This record by Spiff is a perfect example. Although its simplistic cover looks like it may have come from a mid-80s AOR pop band from Iowa that recorded an album of soft rock jams with lyrics about how much they want to rip off your teal jumpsuit and muss up your feathered hair as they rock your body (gently, of course… they’re soft rockers, after all), in reality the record is a completely unknown, Southern Californian one-man synthpop extravaganza.
While the prospect of late-80s synthpop leaves a very sour taste in most of our mouths, let me assure you that this guy was the genuine article. It sounds as if he worshipped in the church of Vince Clarke and Paul Humphreys. While other kids in his school band were learning to play Stars and Stripes Forever, he was trying to convince the music teacher that the composition sorely lacked a Jupiter 8 solo. And while other kids recited the US Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school, he probably sang Just Can’t Get Enough.
Truly, there is not a dud on this album. The only criticism I really have is that it is not a very dynamic record – most songs are about the same BPM and sound vaguely similar to one another, and the same drum fill is used on almost every song. Of course, given the choice between listening to a slightly redundant late-80s record heavily influenced by Speak and Spell, or a third-rate Quiet Riot clone singing their last remaining brain cells out, I certainly prefer the former. And there are songs that stand out from the rest here – Phon is eminently danceable, with silly lyrics and samples of telephones ringing. Follow Me has an absolutely killer bassline and is prefect for any synthpop dance club (especially since most of the lyrics simply say “get up, get up, get up and dance”).
The more I listen to this record, the more I appreciate the mysterious Spiff's completely earnest take on a style of music that was certainly passé when he released it. He was 10 years too late to enjoy any sort of renown with this record, and at least 10 years too early to take advantage of any sort of early-synthpop resurgence. In a way, I suppose he was one of the very first people to revive this style of electro-pop, albeit at the worst time possible (commercially, at least). At the beginning of “Clauge”, he declares “In the late 70s, no-one understood… there was a new age dawning. And this is what it sounded like” just before a barrage of (kind of cheesy) analog-sounding electronics smacks your ears. With this statement, you know that Spiff is trying desperately to recapture the sound of a bygone era. And I’ll be damned if he doesn’t succeed wonderfully.
Spiff: Music at Last EP
1989, self-releasedFeel Spiffy here.