Spenking Crosses/Spenking (split LP with Viking Moses)

[Marriage; 2005]

Rating: 2/5

Styles: acoustic folk
Others: Viking Moses, Devendra Banhart, any singer/songwriter with a guitar

Crosses is a concept album of sorts (except it's not a very original concept) about the growth of a relationship with a girl named Emma. It's a cute idea -- singing about one girl for an entire album? What a sweetheart! -- but the execution is so bizarre that I'm not sure how I'm supposed to feel about it. Brandon Massei (Viking Moses' main member) is a fairly well-respected artist, who's toured with Devendra Banhart, Magnolia Electric Co. (then known as Songs: Ohia), and other better-known groups. So the fact that this album is so sparse, its music so awfully simple, is a little surprising. Most of the songs have a two- or three-chord progression, plucked simply, with no nonsense -- many start with the same exact A chord plucked slightly differently. There's some piano overdubed (the album was recorded live), which makes for a nice addition, but other than that, a quiet guitar is all that backs Massei's vocals. Of course, with a lot of concept albums the lyrics are supposed to take center stage, and Crosses' lyrics are fairly decent if not often overly precious. But Massei's delivery is almost bored and nonchalant; there's a surprising lack of emotion in his words. And I know the music is probably supposed to be mostly ornamental, but it's so bland as to be distracting. The album seems more like a poetry reading with a hung- over poet than a folk record, and sweet concept or not, that's not a good thing.

Spenking, Spencer Kingman's self-titled 18-minute debut (get it? Spen (cer)king(man)?), is a much more straightforward release. It's just Spencer and his guitar, like Crosses, but the key difference is that his melodies are incredibly well done. No matter the subject matter, they all come across as upbeat and catchy (his voice, endearingly high and almost too soft, adds to the mood). The album also features guitar compositions that are much more complex and interesting, though that doesn't say much. The only problem is that too often his songs solely focus on melody, creating the same problem that plagues Crosses, where the guitars exist only because they have to. The first track on the album, "Accounts," features an excellent melody and terrifically clever guitar work (more than can be said for Crosses), but the closing track, "Two More Miles," features just enough guitar strumming to keep Kingman on key. But he definitely has a knack for a good melody, and he's got enough talent to make me anticipate a full-length soon.

Disc 1 (Crosses):
1. Still My Home
2. Little Emma's Smile
3. Country Gown
4. Georgia
5. My Husband's Hand
6. Dancing by the Water Day
7. Carolina
8. Crosses
9. Wet Stones at Both my Sides
10. Virginia
11. Little Arms
12. Fingernail Moon
13. Delighted
14. Home
Disc 2 (Spenking):

1. Accounts
2. Bethlehem-hell Express
3. Vietnam Malaria Nostalgia
4. R.A.T.L.
5. Bowser Bowser Bowser
6. Al Jazeera
7. Mortified
8. Two More Miles