Waiting for beauty to find them, unlike Californian collective surf into eternity with a string of early albums, their best.
Somewhat eclectic, sometimes esoteric and somehow conceptual: there are the words that can describe the label who released this box set and the band whose classic material is spread across its five discs. Five albums, a soundtrack to a French film plus assorted singles, alternative mixes and rarities: here’s much more than the track which brought SPIRIT to headlines due to the musicians’ posthumous lawsuit against LED ZEPPELIN and provided them with the wrong sort of media focus. The American quintet – guitarist Randy California, drummer Ed Cassidy, keyboard player John Locke, bassist Mark Andes and singer Jay Ferguson – didn’t sound similar to any other artist from the same time and space, and their early, essential recordings are testament to the line-up’s originality.
For all its scandalous associations, the majestically dim baroque of “Taurus” isn’t as bright and immediately memorable to conjure a “Stairway To Heaven” specter, as the ensemble rarely excelled in pure instrumental pieces, their foray into incidental music for Jacques Demy’s “Model Shop” movie unimpressive but revealing the group’s prog potential and – on such numbers as the reflective “Fog” or “Mellow Fellow” – attention to the arrangements’ texture. The band proved to be rather influential in a flippant mode, serving up infectious rockers like “I Got A Line On You” – covered by Alice Cooper with two of the groups he fronted – which opens “The Family That Plays Together” from 1968, SPIRIT’s sophomore record and a step down from its kaleidoscopic predecessor, despite the rapturous presence of “It Shall Be” where flute and brass pass folk to soul to jazz before the lysergic jive of “Poor Richard” references “the freshness of garbage” to connect the drift to the flow of the LA team’s self-titled record.
From today’s perspective, it’s easy to assume that “the world’s a can for your fresh garbage” is an ecologically slanted line, yet in the context of the collective’s first album there’s a mental meaning to the mesmeric refrain, the artists taking out their ideas to the public space – for everyone to take a whiff of. The band’s 1968 debut still has a sweet miasma to the songs which seem as far removed from other West Coast music waste as possible in this strange mix of hard rock and psychedelia, joining the dots between those genres on “Dream Within A Dream” and other deep cuts in the way their British counterparts GUN tried to, with a smell to linger longer. The raga-tinctured “Girl In Your Eye” and the sparkling “Uncle Jack” feel quite innocent, but the riffs behind the latter’s light tune hide a menace, especially in mono version of the “Spirit” LP where the vocal harmonies, hidden in stereo panorama, float to the surface of “Straight Arrow” and the orchestral backdrop, acid guitar and dramatic beat of “Mechanical World” blend in the most organic manner.
California would channel his inner Django in the dynamically challenging “Gramophone Man” and let rip on the epic “Elijah” which allows the entire group flex their abstractionist muscle, with Locke’s electric piano and Andes’ bass directing the interplay, while outtake “Veruska” marries gothic heaviness to exotic meandering, yet condensed euphoria of “Aren’t You Glad” defies the track’s molten blues. The deceptively diluted OST sketches got there as well, to eventually form the delicately riveting title theme of “Clear” and a few other tracks from this 1969 record. It might have been slightly underdeveloped, due to the lack of time after two albums from the previous year – the stomping “So Little Time To Fly” explaining the situation – but the band, especially Ferguson and Andes, pulled a punchy performance on “Dark Eyed Woman” and shot “Ground Hog” with a good dose of drone, although it’s “New Dope In Town” which is tapping into mellifluously elegant R&B reeking of New Orleans… to become much dirtier on the brisk 1970’s single “Red Light Roll On” that’s brimful with panache.
Still, the pulsating funk of another ’45, “1984” – bolstered with organ and seared with cosmic six strings – hits dystopia on the head to burn its melody into the listener’s memory, and be banned by many radio stations, just as the follow-up album “The Twelve Dreams Of Doctor Sardonicus” does. Deemed to be the band’s magnum opus, the LP has a thematic edge to it, bursting to life from a serene strum of “Prelude” with a bang and a scream which make “Nothing To Hide” a wake-up call, enhanced with reeds and slider licks and addressed to humanity as a whole and politicians in particular, whereas “Mr Skin” is a scintillating slice of almost salacious and social satire. There’s also a catchy “Street Worm” and a pounding “When I Touch You” that dig much deeper into demented blues, yet it would take a disturbingly quiet “Nature’s Way” – an acoustic return to desperate lament for ecology – for the ensemble to scale the charts, albeit the pop candy “Morning Will Come” or the folk frivolity of “Animal Zoo” could have lead them there, too. Alongside these, Locke’s art-rock extravaganza “Space Child” shouldn’t get overlooked, and it’s a pity the quintet didn’t go further to explore interstellar highways.
If the filigree of “All The Same” from “The Family” hinted at the band’s country-rock abilities, and 1970’s outtake “Rougher Road” outlined their alternative route even clearer, 1972’s “Feedback” LP saw the ensemble stumble in exactly that direction – without Ferguson and Andes, fired by California for supposedly plotting a coup and gone to form JO JO GUNNE, and without Randy, who suffered a head injury while horse-riding and couldn’t tour, so he used the downtime to release "Kapt. Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds" with a prospect of solo career. Bass-wielding vocalist Al Staehely and his guitarist brother Chris wrote the bulk of the new line-up’s sole album, imbuing boogie “Chelsea Girls” with vigor and swagger and sending it to “Cadillac Cowboys” before swinging “Puesta Del Scam” towards rainbow-colored wigout and snatching “Trancas Fog-Out” from the improvisatory fusion skies. But the gentle “Darkness” and the groovy “Earth Shaker” wouldn’t fly as high if not for female backing, and, despite the unison lines and carnival kind of singalong, “Witch” doesn’t possess the same magic as the collective’s earlier oeuvre.
Here, this wonder – the enviable body of work – is laid out and boxed in for all to marvel at. A treasure chest, indeed.