Album Reviews: The Spygenius Back Catalog

Spygenius – Songs from the Devil’s Typist (circa 2008)
Compared to their more recent output – but only in that context – Spygenius’s debut album initially comes off as a bit on the conventional side. But all of the qualities that would make the group’s music appealing are in place – the finely-tuned arrangements, intelligent lyrics and tight, inventive ensemble playing – are all there. And then if one digs just a bit deeper, the humor that characterizes their approach breaks right through to the surface. How else to explain what seems like a straight-ahead rocker, “T F Bundy”? I had to have it explained to me, but that “name” is in fact an acronym used (apparently) in UK hospitals. It stands for “Totally Fucked But Unfortunately Not Dead Yet.” Taken as a whole, Songs from the Devil’s Typist rocks harder than some later efforts. On its face, that’s neither a plus nor a minus; it’s merely a sign of the group’s range and variety.

Spygenius – Red Lounge (circa 2010)
Peter and Ruth’s affinity for mid-mod and tiki décor finds expression in the packaging of this, Spygenius’s second full length release. The sound is even more wide-screen than before, and Matt Byrne’s keyboards are applied to even better effect. The dense lyricism of the album is among its defining qualities. As strong a debut as Typist was, Red Lounge represents a great leap forward. Subtlety and sharpness are served up in equal measure. The crackling energy of early XTC is paired with the intricacy of that group’s later work, all while not sounding very much at all like XTC (so there!). Special note should be made of the tricky treat that is Spygenius’s vocal harmony.

Spygenius – The Comforting Suture
From the album art to the song titles, one can never be quite sure what Spygenius are on about. And that’s fine; it isn’t necessary to understand the group’s motivations to luxuriate in their music. Spygenius draws so deftly from far corners of the pop landscape to craft its signature music that one can’t help but be impressed… and even a bit overwhelmed. The Comforting Suture (what?) opens with a dazzling “Spygenius 65,” an instrumental work that calls to mind surf rock, spaghetti westerns, flamenco and who-knows what else, all at once. It segues right into the supercharged and multilayered “Furniture Boats.” In some ways, the group’s third album marks the full flowering of what might be thought of as the Spygenius “sound.” but the band’s approach is so complex (in a good way) that variety is really the music’s defining feature. And oh oh oh, those countermelodic harmonies!

Spygenius – ‘Pacéphale (2016)
This album – with a title I wouldn’t hazard to pronounce, much less describe – signals the beginning of the “branding” courtesy of the band’s friend and associate Champniss, the artist responsible for the visuals that would be a key part of all subsequent releases. But as ever, the music is the main thing. And the intricate vocal arrangements, wonderfully nuanced keyboard work, rock-solid percussion, propulsive and complex basswork and cheerfully chiming guitars simply abound throughout this record. Four albums in, Spygenius manage the rare feat of making each album better than the last.

You’d do well to pick up all of these, and of course the more recent three I’ve covered elsewhere.