Somewhere between a Sunday afternoon country store jam session and a psychedelic freakout at the Fillmore, the Asylum Street Spankers loudly ply their trade. A precocious gaggle of virtuosos drawn together for pure shits and giggles, the Spankers have been pleasing the fortunate few (and, occasionally, the lucky multitude) for who knows how long. They are famous for taking the stage unplugged and beating any cell phone simpletons senseless in their quest for pure acoustic freedom and general jollity. And that's just the first song.
As a musical outfit, the Spankers meld many divergent strains without the slightest hitch, which gives them the air of a well-established genre and the feel of something entirely new. From Wammo's slam poetics to Stanley Smith's raspy clarinet to Christina Marrs'' cute-as-a-button inflection (more on that later), the Spankers are willing to trod where few have trode (trad? tridden? Fuck it ...) before. In other words: They's diff'rnt.
On their way to becoming smalltown legends, they have explored everything from the War on Drugs to the merits of vinyl. Indeed, it is this latter topic that loosely ties together their upcoming release, ambitiously titled My Favorite Record. While the theme of vinyl albums is not as perceptible here as, say, their explorations of altered consciousness on Spanker Madness, I'll trust Wammo when he tells me that the new CD is "about how we love vinyl." He continues: "I have about five turntables, 78 players, a Technics, and others. I used to be a DJ, so I have tons of vinyl actual walls of vinyl."
My Favorite Record is hardly that. But there are a few cuts that have made it into regular rotation on my changer, and one in particular, "Antifreeze," has broken my top 10. The tune, which Wammo claims is "just one in a long line of drinking songs I've written," may be the best thing I've heard in months, and is instantly accessible as the type of song that taps into our own unacknowledged demons. Or maybe it's just that I share Wammo's affinity for the bottle, and enjoy a minor bridge followed by a catchy refrain.
Either way, the point is that the album is full of fresh material. By releasing a record of entirely original work, the band has nailed another spike into the coffin of those critics who claim unoriginality, citing the perennially favorite Christmas-themed album (A Spanker Christmas) and the decidedly odd release of an entire CD of Prince covers (Do Me, Baby!). And while a live Spankers show around the Winter holidays shames the studio version (a disappointing mix of, well, chestnuts), you've got to hand it to them: They did a number on old Prince, and their unique translation of the Purple One's frothy funk places it in an entirely different genre.
But that's the sort of thing that happens when you accentuate your tunes with a musical saw and replace the lispy aspirations of Prince with the honeyed vocal stylings of Christina Marrs. Marrs' voice is so incredibly sweet that audience members have been known to go home with cavities. Last time I saw the Spankers play, Marrs was enormously pregnant, and I remember thinking that if I could be reborn as her child, I would cry all the time just to keep her singing lullabies.
Yet I could hardly count on run-of-mill cradlesongs from anyone associated with the Spankers. Their lyrics (and music) are entirely too bizarre for anything as trite as "Rock-a-bye, Baby," although the terrifying finale of that ditty might provide a good jumping-off point for one of their famous instrumental hallucinations. (And as a veteran of more than one root canal, I can tell you that the band convincingly recreates the ethereal aural aberrations of a deep nitrous oxide trip.)
In fact, one imagines the wobbly grooves of the Spankers' creative process spinning much faster than 33 1/3. In addition to recording music, their musical acumen is such that they often tour with silent movies (they are currently on the road with Buster Keaton's 1925 "Steamboat Bill, Jr"). Lyrically, their songs weave a masterfully rich fabric of pop culture references, including everything from Bill Hicks'' acerbic humor to the cliché image of grad students seducing each other over discussions of Camus. Heady stuff, to be sure, but all in the name of fun. How else could they wind up with the following jingle? "I'll suck the formaldehyde out of the jar holding Kurt Cobain's brain while using Hemingway's shotgun barrel as a straw before I let you touch my soul."
That and more will greet you on Thursday, September 19 at the Spankers' record release party at Casbeers, where the band has promised "plenty of new stuff, but some classics, too." Expect the show to be part street theater, part slam poetry reading, part acoustic swing, and all good.
ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS CD RELEASE
Thursday, September 19
1719 Blanco Road