There’s hardly any shortage of nostalgic pop records these days, but Spectrals’ first proper release, the seven-track Extended Play back in 2010, was one of the better ones I’ve heard in recent years. Whether it was Louis Jones’ dulcet Yorkshire tones or his sharp ear for melody, he produced a collection of wonderfully catchy love songs, tinged with surf pop, that earned him a deal with Wichita and boded well for future releases. His first full-length, Bad Penny, served as a selection of bite-size pop jams, with a handful of real gems alongside a few tracks that didn’t really benefit from the record’s more expansive guitar work.
Jones has toured with pretty much everyone who’s anyone in alternative guitar pop terms; Real Estate, Wavves, Best Coast and Girls all spring to mind, with the now-defunct latter the most noteworthy – bassist Chet White took on production duties on this sophomore Spectrals effort. The sunnier climes that Sob Story was recorded in – at White’s studio in San Francisco – have had an obvious effect on its disposition; on opener ‘Let Me Cave In’, a simmering opening gives way to racing drums and bouncy guitars, while ‘Blue Whatever’ and ‘Gentle’ are in the traditional Spectrals mould, but with chirpier guitar work than we’ve heard before.
What’s probably most striking about Sob Story is the manner in which Jones has sought to diversify his influences. Lead single ‘A Heartbeat Behind’ is pure 50s Americana – hardly a surprising move, given Jones’ retro-pop tendencies – but it’s followed by ‘Karaoke’, which features some Reni-esque funk drumming to underscore the playful refrain of “I don’t think I was really cut out for this.” The stormy ‘Milky Way’ is probably the album’s single biggest departure; distorted vocals and fluctuating guitars combine to create something that borders on the psychedelic. Eerie closer ‘In a Bad Way’ is a less successful attempt at something different; a lingering guitar line, tinged with ghostly wurlitzer, backs Jones’ almost moaned vocals to provide a bizarre close to the record.
There’s throwbacks to the Spectrals of old, too; on Bad Penny, things were kept as tight as possible, with only a couple of tracks topping three minutes, but the title track here, a yearning slow-burner, is a spiritual successor to Extended Play highlight ‘I Ran With Love but I Couldn’t Keep Up’, whilst the understated ‘Friend Zone’ is another step away from that last album’s sharp pop. There’s also a new, and slightly-overproduced, version of old cut ‘Keep Your Magic Out of My House’.
Any record as flat-out nostalgic as Sob Story is hardly going to push the musical envelope, but Spectrals having signed with a label that carries as much prestige as Wichita is surely proof that there will always be room for good pop music. This certainly won’t be the most original album you’ll hear this year, but it will be one of the most charming, and the rate at which Jones is managing to churn out quality pop songs bodes well for the future, and means you can forgive him Sob Story‘s occasional misstep.