Saturday, December 10, 2005

Spirit - The Model Shop CD (Sundazed)

Since Jacques Demy’s pretty and brainless The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) was an international hit, Columbia bankrolled his 1969 U.S. debut despite an underslung concept and the French darling’s near-total unfamiliarity with spoken English. The Model Shop was one of many pop-art buzz-bombs Hollywood majors financed in the late sixties. Once Roger Corman, Richard Lester, Dennis Hopper and others appeared to discover a winning anti-formula, the international big-money all took flyers on the youth/drug/rock & roll movie. Some of these grotesqueries later found audiences (Performance, The Magic Christian, Head), others survive as winningly wonky curios (Candy, Skiddoo), but The Model Shop is as insipid and featherbrained now as it must’ve been thirty-seven years ago. A fateful day in aimless life of an L.A. counterculture drone after an induction notice appears in the mail, the studio insisted on Gary (2001) Lockwood, a stick of unsympathetic furniture, for the lead (Demy’s choice of then-unknown Harrison Ford would’ve brought an interesting naturalism to an even worse film). Despite some superb footage of a now-dead Sunset Strip, what one hears on the soundtrack is infinitely more involving than what’s happening on the screen.

Demy wanted the ominous throb of a brightly horrible city, and so brought in L.A. pysch maestros Spirit after seeing their live act at the Kaleidoscope. The band (formed in 1967 out of the Griffith Park love-ins) was in the middle of recording their sophomore LP (1968’s The Family That Plays Together) when Demy offered them the score and small roles in the movie. Some of the tracks wound up on Clear, the band’s next release, and the perceptible chill of that album hits absolute zero on this soundtrack. Spirit’s one national hit, the joyous “I Got a Line on You,” climbed into the Top Twenty just before the Model Shop sessions, and future prospects were excellent.

Spirit’s jazzbo/psych sound is indispensably Angeleno in its hard-edged hippie drooginess, evoking the skullbake irreality of the city’s pink sunsets and unhinged loners. Here the wit and cynic mysticism expressed in songs like “Fresh Garbage” and “Silky Sam” is bypassed in favor of cold atmosphere and improvisation. Usually given to mixing and matching songwriters, band compositions predominate on this disc, with hypertrophied solos and gnomic lyrics bobbing in an icy groove. Jay Ferguson was the band’s signature vocalist, addressing the Cahengua Ave. mob on “Now or Anywhere” in his doomfreak Yippie politician’s yawlp and returning to blister again on a spare version of Family’s album closer “Aren’t You Glad.” John Locke’s keyboards form the spine of these sessions, with Ed Cassidy’s drums and Randy California’s freakish guitar slapping brawler’s muscle onto the melodies. Tracks like “Fog” and “Green Gorilla” are revelations as to where soundtrack jazz might’ve gone had not Isaac Hayes invented soundtrack funk soon after.

Spirit’s discography can well stand as the loose-limbed American answer to late-sixties Traffic and Pink Floyd, with this missing piece as essential for jazz and movie-score enthusiasts as the original lineup’s first four albums are for everyone else. (Ron Garmon)

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