Many members of the media and probably a fair amount of your parents have spent time lamenting how the world of today has warped people’s attention spans down to something that can barely get through a 140-character sentence. Whether that’s true or just typical “back in MY day” bluster from older generations can’t really be figured out, but the age of information has definitely changed the speed at which we interact with music. The ever-changing Internet and the proliferation of music blogs constantly chasing the newest “buzz” has turned bands into the sonic equivalent of bananas at the supermarket – fresh one second, ready for the (recycle) bin soon after. Save for a select few artists who have the name recognition/mystique to wait long periods of time before proper releases, most web-savvy bands have figured out how this cycle work, so they constantly put out new material to stay within the crosshairs of important online musical outlets. Whether that’s bad or not ends up being a personal opinion…but that’s how it is.
This rush to stay relevant and “new” has produced plenty of great music, yet when a contemporary artist decides to slow down and spend a significant amount of time reflecting on music they’ve already made…unafraid to stare into their own personal past and ponder…that feels brave. Tokyo’s Spangle Call Lilli Line formed before the Oughts, a time when music wasn’t flashing by at the speed of Twitter, and have always kept on eye fixed on what they did before, unafraid to visit older material, deconstruct it and reassemble it in new ways. This year they released two mini-albums, the up-tempo New Season and the piano-centric Piano Lesson, the bulk of both being new versions of older tracks. Spangle Call release plenty of new material, but this steadfast dedication to roaming around in their own back catalogue has resulted in compositions that bloom in new ways over time.
The best example of this is Spangle Call’s series of recent (starting in 2008) “Rio” songs. Counting this year’s “For Rio” off New Season, the trio has recorded four takes on this song. It’s the best example of Spangle Call’s sonic self-reflection, each new take a gorgeous new reinterpretation rich with new feeling. “For Rio” has become one of my favorite songs of the year, so I’ve spent a lot of time recently listening to each prior manifestation, trying to figure out why this song in every incarnation hits me so. Below, I’ve written a little about each of the four versions.
”Roam In Octave” on Isolation
The original version of this song, the only take to not include the word “Rio” in the title, fits in nicely on the relatively fragile Isolation. Lead singer Kana Otsubo softly sings the opening verse against only some light piano, to the point you can practically see the glow of white candles surrounding her. It all seems deeply intimate, like we’ve stumbled across a private recording meant for someone important to the central speaker. Then Otsubo comes to the chorus and things get silver-screen appropriate – a few orchestra-ready strings enter the picture, turning this from private recording to the soundtrack to the closing credits of a home movie. The back half of “Octave” nearly becomes silent, the band opting out of proper song structure in favor of barely-there reflection – future versions stayed more focused, this initial run almost seeming like a model done in wax paper. Every future interpretation of this song feels personal, but it’s only on “Octave” where you see Spangle Call staring directly at the inspiration.
”Rio” on Purple
“Rio” retains the fragility created on “Octave,” but comes off as more of a dreamy affair. The starkness of “Octave’s” instrumentation and structure gets swapped out for some twilight-evoking bell chimes and a walking pace that seems appropriate for sorting stuff out in your head. Most obviously, “Rio” refuses to wander, replacing the near-silence of the original with an extended bridge that finds Otsubo sounding as inviting as a feather pillow. Whereas “Octave” sounded like a private recording prone to wander, “Rio” strikes as pure headspace, the most reflective take and the one that lends itself best to Autumn strolls. Sonically, this could be played in a lounge and end up the highlight of the night, Spangle Call channeling Yo La Tengo circa And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Yet ultimately, it’s the property of dreams and the prettiest incarnation of this song.
”Rio The Other” on View
Each evolution of “Rio” picks up the tempo a bit, and “Rio The Other” ends up being the average speed one in the series. It’s Spangle Call’s most straightforward interpretation, so simple that it’s hard to find anything to fault it with beyond not being very daring. Yet, as nice as it sounds…and Otsubo, ever the constant, sounds just as sharp here…it lacks the emotional push the other three boast, making it my least favorite “Rio.”
The last 30 seconds, though, sound great and ends up the best closing portion in the series.
”For Rio” on New Season
(The only one not online! Buy the album!)
In which Spangle Call Lilli Line decode the secret of this four-year-old song and realize it needs to be turned inside-out a bit to reach its full potential – whereas the other “Rio” songs stroll, “For Rio” fires out the gate, an unabashed rock song throwing all caution to the wind. Guitars barely showed up in the previous three takes, but here they bring the song to life, almost summoning the galloping drum that gives “For Rio” its hops. The speed of this song sets it apart – this one SLAYS on a treadmill – but Otsubo again breathes soul into this song. Surprisingly, she sounds totally different here than on the other incarnations – each of those gave her room to show off her chops a bit, but the crunchy pace of “For Rio” forces her to sing quickly, whittling her vocal runs down to sharp lyrical points. She sounds urgent, the melodramatic wanderings of early versions now simplified into something much more direct but just as affecting. And they still make it sound pretty – the chorus and bridge, in particular, carry traces of prior gorgeousness, Otsubo’s voice still retaining a side of longing.
“For Rio” is my favorite version of this song…and a track that has quietly snuck up my mental “best of 2011” list…and seems like an appropriate ending for the “Rio” series. Of course, Spangle Call could see it differently, and might be uncovering a whole new dimension to this thing as I type.