Spray - Living in Neon

by Joseph Majsterski Rating:6 Release Date:2016-10-14

Spray have been around for a long time, sort of. Half of the group Cuban Boys, who released the ridiculous viral song 'Cognoscenti vs Intelligentsia', aka The Hamster Dance, about twenty years ago, Jenny McLaren and John "Ricardo Autobahn" Matthews put out a couple albums in the first part of the 2000s then went off to work on other projects for about a decade before releasing a third proper album in 2016. After that, they re-released their two original albums with bonus discs, amounting to an absolute boatload of music old and new in just under a year. Luckily, most of it is pretty good. Living in Neon, reviewed here, came out in late 2016. A second review will cover Children of a Laser God, which came out in mid-2017.

Spray are a band that combine the ability to write songs with the ability to write jokes. Almost everything they do is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, although their passion for the early days of synth pop is sincere. The title track lays it all out there: "a synth pop girl in a synth pop world". That's pretty much the band in a nutshell, with McLaren playing in Autobahn's world. The follow-up 'Child of the 80s' continues to hammer the message home, but is significantly more frenetic. 'I Am Gothic' (notice a theme in the titles yet?) keeps going after it.

There are a few excellent tracks on the first disc. 'Heatwavers' is slow and moody compared to most of the action-packed tunes on offer, with fantastic layered keys, and shows off McLaren's voice and clever writing. She's mostly serious here, with just a dash of silliness for flavor. 'Fashion Stigmata' is extremely goofy, with piano, synth splashes, horns, and something that almost sounds like a synth slide whistle all battling it out. Then the children start singing. Yeah. But somehow it all works together brilliantly, hitting that narrow band of 80s epic and embarrassing perfectly. And I mean that in the nicest way. 'The Story of My Life is an FX Show' brings in some jamming guitars and pounding beats to give it a little more punch. And bonus track 'Mean Green Mother From Outer Space' has some great popcorn synths and silly vocoded vocals.

Disc two is a combination of remixes and previously unreleased material. It starts off strong with a very cool little remix of the title track blending whispered vocals and big strings. The Occumix remix of 'I Am Gothic' is a bit janglier and more erratic, with slightly disjointed synths. But most of what follows is even more dance floor friendly that the original tunes, for good or ill. The Raindancer remix of 'I Am Gothic' hits all the usual club check boxes: extended length, four-on-the-floor beats, big build-ups and break downs, and pulsing synths. It's mindless fun, predictable, but still something that makes you want to get up and move.

'We Read It on the Internet' feels like mainline Spray, rushing along on relentless beats and simple melodies. The chorus 'we read it on the Internet; it must be true' feels both sadly out-of-date (we're all savvy now, right?) and oddly prescient. There are some interesting moments too, like instrumental 'The Debonair Spy Theme', which slides back a few years into the 70s with its synth stylings, very proto-spacey and harmonic. It's a definite highlight. 'Steppin Up (Steppin In)' sounds like a riff on Utah Saints, using lots of vocal samples to add texture. And 'Time Eames (The DJ of Your Dreams)' is a glittery, spinning top of rippling synths flying along at breakneck speed.

Still, this is thirty-six tracks altogether, and it does start to wear you down after a while, as there doesn't seem to be as much variation as on their more recent set or the other re-release. You can tell it's their first album; they're testing the water but staying in a comfort zone. If you're not a hardcore synth-pop aficionado, this might not convert you. Having said that, there's a solid core of good tunes buried in here, and long-time fans should be delighted with all the new material. Stay tuned for the review of their other re-release, Children of a Laser God.

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