Spottiswoode & His Enemies play slightly cracked good-time music

August 04, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Do yourself a favor and don't try to peg Spottiswoode & His Enemies.

A seven-piece band led by British singer-songwriter Jonathan Spottiswoode, the group takes disparate styles -- gospel, country, blues, mariachi, David Bowie-inspired rock, Burt Bacharach-like pop -- and throws them altogether, sometimes in one song. But because the musicianship is so tight, the performances so inspired, the vibrant mash-up never feels disorienting or pretentious. It's mostly strange, good-time music that goes down easy. The added attraction is that the collective doesn't take itself too seriously.

Spottiswoode performs tonight as part of the WTMD First Thursday Concert Series in Mount Vernon Square. The band's new album is Building a Road, a charged set of poetic, sometimes irreverent tales of self-discovery, twisted romance and redemption. It's the follow-up to the band's self-titled 2001 debut.

"The new record goes in a lot of different directions," says Spottiswoode, who's calling from a tour stop in Nashville. "Even though you hear different colors, there's an impressionistic journey. There's a unity to the songs."

Despite the various musical directions, Building a Road is pretty cohesive. There's an appealing fullness and warmth to the overall sound -- amazing considering that the 17-song set was recorded in four days.

"We wanted it to feel fresh and raw and honest," Spottiswoode says. "I'm flattered when people say there's some honesty [in the music]."

The artist sings in a broodingly rich baritone, adding heft and drama to his loopy but graceful songs. Highlights from Building a Road include "Play Me in Your Bedroom," a subtle song of seduction that, unlike the mind-numbing inanity of some of today's pop love songs, goes in a more atmospheric, less obvious direction. "I'm in Love With an Angry Girl" is an almost festive cut about a masochistic, lovesick chap. "Once in a while when I write, I know what the song is going to be about," Spottiswoode says. "It's not like I wrote these songs in a row. I thought these songs belonged together. There's a bit of arrogance at first in the song cycle, then a celebration of lust. Then you get a sense that there's a relationship and some sense of a breakup. It's not like a Hollywood film. Each song is its own song."

Years before Spottiswoode assembled his musically mixed-up band, the London-born artist aspired to be an academic. He had always appreciated music, playing guitar and writing songs while in high school. But at the time, he didn't seriously consider pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter. After studying at the University of Edinburgh and earning a degree in intellectual history, Spottiswoode changed his mind. He decided he wasn't ready to "deal with the real world." So he figured the more sensible option was to forgo a life of theories and books and become a musician. It took some time to find himself, though. He moved to Philadelphia, then back to Edinburgh and on to Washington after that. "I knew music would be much more fulfilling," he says. "A life as an academic would have been a huge mistake for me."

He joined the Zimmermans, a '90s Washington band that mixed punk, folk and lounge music. He played lead guitar and sang background vocals. While with the group, he dabbled in filmmaking and won an Emmy for a Zimmermans' music video trilogy. When the group dissolved shortly afterward, Spottiswoode formed his own band. Some of the guys from his former collective joined him. "I wanted to call 'em my enemies before they did," the singer-songwriter says, laughing. "It's democratic, but I have veto power. If I don't like an idea, we try it again."

Inspired by '60s soul, pop and rock -- Aretha Franklin, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others, Spottiswoode always infuses his music with emotion.

"There's a kind of theater to the music," he says. "I love how in the '60s the great rock bands allowed themselves to express so many different emotions -- unlike bands today. There's a whole spectrum of emotions. We're not afraid to go there."

Check out Spottiswoode & His Enemies at the WTMD First Thursday Concert Series at Mount Vernon Square (Washington Monument) at 5:30. The concert is free.

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