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SPIRITUALIZED’S ATMOSPHERIC REENTRY

November 29, 2009

Today the Observer’s Music Monthly breathed its last with a rollout of the decade’s best albums. As you’d expect it was deeply wishy-washy, with many Dizzee namedrops and Mike Skinner jocking. The reason? Because ‘best album’ polls are generally dated before the voting journos involved have even hit send on that mail with the rich text attachment.

Opinions are like rectums and all that, because while Spiritualized topped ’97 polls in several publications, looking at recent polls, the dated ‘Urban Hymns‘ and overrated ‘OK Computer‘ have lapped ‘Ladies And Gentleman We Are Floating In Space‘ and its celestial glory. Which is, of course, an injustice. While Yorke read ‘No Logo’ and became toe-curlingly politicised in the most fey, ineffectual manner, and Ashcroft moped about solo in Wallabees, Jason Pierce and his fellow cosmonauts kept the faith, even if commercial success gradually rolled back to a cult following.

Spiritual, dense and perfectionist in his approach to sonics, Jason Pierce wasn’t the only former smackhead whose work aged with a great deal more grace than the swaggering yayo rockers and rappers of the time – veteran musician Mick Head and Shack’s slight return was around the same time as Spiritualized’s masterpiece, as was B.G’s ‘Chopper City In The Ghetto.’ It took me a minute to get into ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ but not as much as the previous releases like ‘Pure Phase‘ forced on me during smoke sessions by Spacemen 3 loving pushermen.

Two concert experiences were ruined by my own excesses of the era – at one show, the vast strobe light backdrop sent me to sleep standing up for the gig’s duration, and at a free outdoor performance in Bristol, a hashcake handed out from a hippy’s Tupperware sent me off to never-neverland once again. I was also mistaken for Pierce in Nottingham record shop looking at Sun-Ra records – at first I was flattered, but then I realised that it was my gaunt appearance and deathly pallor that caused confusion. Still, Spiritualized defined the conclusion of my higher education.

Then there was the packaging. I noticed later was that my indie kid associates were already engaging in oneupmanship surrounding the first pressing glow-in-the-dark edition of the group’s second LP. What followed was something even bigger. ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…‘ was available in three CD formats – the pill blister pack, the lowly slipcased version for those slow off the marks and late adopters flocking after hyperbolic coverage, and best of all, the twelve disc full pill packet variation. Designed in conjunction with Farrow, who dropped a serious boxset in association with frequent collaborators the Pet Shop Boys this year, it was noted at the time that this was manufactured in an actual pharamacutical factory. No half stepping where J. Spaceman is involved. Beyond just alluding to the narcotic influences that paved the project’s path or music’s drug-like synthetic opiate power, this pushes the concept to the limit.

It also embraces the much derided compact disc format’s clean, efficient aesthetic and renders it as clinical as it can possibly be – where a reissue label like Numero sells me shiny discs by evoking the dusty warmth of the vinyl remastered and unearthed within, Farrow and Pierce make no attempt to flee that surgical sheen. They choose to face it head-on, proving there’s a surprisingly eloquent design language beneath the surface, and one worth amplifying. While the content takes authentically bluesy turns and rebuilds Spector’s Wall Of Sound, you’ll  find no vinyl nostalgia externally.

This Creative Review conversation to coincide with the release of  ‘Songs In A&E” proves that the medical theme sustained, and that emphasis on packaging hasn’t diminished in the face of an industry slump.  On release, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…‘ was an attempt to make a musical offering a tactile experience as well as an audible one, and in the interview,  Pierce explains,

Before I worked with Farrow, I did an album called Pure Phase. Even then I wanted to try and get away from the CD jewel case. It was a cheap product in an ill-designed box, the plastic cracked, the spindles broke. People were spending decent money on design but they were putting it behind the cheapest bit of plastic known to man: it seemed like the music wasn’t important. I’d seen Mark’s work for the Pet Shop Boys and thought it was beautiful. It fitted what needed to be done in order to get the music packaged and onto a rack, but it managed to do something different with it.

You’ve got to admire a collaborator whose dedication to perfect type means he tailors the album’s running time to an attractive round number so it looks good.  Lavelle’s Ben Drury assisted Mo’ Wax releases walked a similar, and costly line when it came to packaging, hence the jewel variations, and in both cases, the profits were munched Pacman-style like those apocryphal tales of  ‘Blue Monday‘ costing Factory more than RRP. Now, as the notion of buying a CD seems almost quaint, Pierce’s approach feels strangely prescient  – the MP3 is as faceless as it comes, but dressing them up is nigh-on impossible, beyond a few iTunes Euro exclusives. It’s not something you’d cherish.

What’s the solution in making music physical again? Extra discs of rarities are a given now. How about the big budget anthology? The Warp20 set’s smartly packaged mix of paper, vinyl and CD was a success at around £120, but you’d expect that from a company that’s as savvy as Pierce in giving up the goods, The Pixies and Neil Young efforts are desirable, but strictly for the monied consumer. The Stone Roses lemon USB is an idea as fruity as it looks. At mass market level there’s little that can’t be zip-filed. The touted rise of vinyl is heartening but fractional when it comes to the bigger picture.

Things done changed in those twelve years. On Monday, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ returns in remastered form, as a similar trio – blister pack, solo and just before Christmas, the twelve disc, on ATP Recordings to coincide with the group performing the album in its entirety at All Tomorrow’s Parties and it leaves me with mixed feelings. Just to appease the original collectors, it’s black rather than white. As someone who ogled the twelve pack in Notting Hill Gate’s Record & Tape Exchange, labelled with an exorbitant price, it’s  tempting.

“This includes 12 x 3” Mini CD’s of the complete full album track-by-track, a homage to the original release. This will be accompanied by 2 bonus discs (as per tracklisting below). For those who don’t want to open the blister pack, each unit will come with a code to download the original album.

Limited to just 1000 units, each collectors edition will come with a prescription numbered out of 1000 and signed by Jason Pierce. Anyone who pre-orders the collectors edition before November 15th can have their own name, or name of their choosing printed on the prescription.”

2009 is a time when you can wipe the slate clean on your retrospective regrets. Like ‘Quantum Leap’ and Sam’s job to right past wrongs, a lack of ideas means a recycled formula of remaster and re-release allows you to see the same thing time and time again. Is ‘Ladies In Gentleman…’ and its triple-threat of reduxes a case of a mad labour-of-love finally making sense over a decade down the line,  or a penny-pinching blip in an otherwise flawless sleeve art evolution?

This video still works for me -

On a barely related note (well, the aforementioned Mr. Lavelle handled the soundtrack), when does this Abel Ferrera documentary reach DVD? The press pack is out there, but it seems to be in limbo.

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