Psychedelic pop group Spain Colored Orange, winner of Best Band at the 2006 Houston Press Music Awards, finds itself in a curious position for its Warehouse Live show Friday night. It's the release party for the band's first full-length effort, Sneaky Like a Villain, but the songs are already old hat to the band members.
For the rest of us, though, Sneaky is a mellow, eclectic album that sounds both cagey and carnivalesque, accessible and exotic. Some passages recall the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, lost '70s "AM Gold" artists like Edison Lighthouse or the Raspberries and Steely Dan's wry jazz-rock fusion. Others aren't far off from latter-day note benders likewise all over the musical map, such as Calexico, Of Montreal or the Flaming Lips. (These are rough reference points, mind you, and SCO would probably take issue with any or all of them.)
Standouts include a chilly Christmas carol Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett might have written ("It Was Christmas Time"), some aggressively catchy Stevie Wonder electro-boogie ("You Think You Know") and jubilant closer "Birds and the Bees," which could come straight from a children's-TV soundtrack — as arranged by The Who's Pete Townshend, that is — and features guest vocals by founder Gilbert Alfaro's young son Sprout. With so many sounds fed into SCO's stylistic blender, Sneaky could have easily been a train wreck, but it works — it's more like a musical Jackson Pollock painting.
Sneaky Like A Villain was originally supposed to come out about a year and a half ago on Chicago's Lucid Records, which released the band's HPMA-winning Hopelessly Incapable of Standing in the Way EP back in 2005, but SCO gradually became dissatisfied with what they call Lucid's lackadaisical attitude toward promoting the EP and releasing the new album. The band and label's relationship eventually degenerated into a climate where lawyers became involved on both sides — or rather, a lawyer friend of SCO's who didn't charge the band anything while he tried to force Lucid's hand — and the completed Sneaky lingered in limbo.
Finally, the night before SXSW '08, the band got a phone call from Lucid's owner releasing them from their contract. Some members wanted SCO to self-release Sneaky immediately, but Alfaro decided to shop it around and eventually found Brooklyn-based Shout It Out Loud Music, which, although it does release and distribute albums, is less a record label than a music licensing company that helps place songs on radio, television and the Internet.
"Some bands may not be into that, but it pays really well," says Alfaro, SCO's front man, keyboardist and principal songwriter.
"There's been a shift, too," adds Eric Jackson, whose trumpet — sometimes piercing, sometimes distant — is a large part of SCO's enticing but difficult-to-peg sound. "That's where things are happening. It's not beating the pavement and putting 20,000 miles on the van over the summer anymore. It's getting the coveted iTunes commercial, and all of a sudden you don't have to leave town anymore."
It's already paid off, in fact. Ford has picked up two songs, one from Hopelessly and one from Sneaky, for a 2010 Mustang spot scheduled to start airing in November. In June, the band is scheduled to record its next album — Alfaro and Jackson say they have enough material for two — in Austin at Mike McCarthy's (Spoon, ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Patty Griffin) studio.
Noise sat down with Alfaro and Jackson at Warren's Inn last week to discuss the new album (and the next one), A Charlie Brown Christmas and SCO's influence on the burgeoning local "H-pop" scene.
Noise: There's a line early in the record,"Wasted all my time." Is that about this whole[Lucid] situation?
Gilbert Alfaro: It could be.
Eric Jackson: In hindsight, it's definitely apropos.For sure.
N: Do you think this whole situation has interrupted your momentum at all?
GA: No, not at all. After the EP and after getting back from tour — at least for myself — I could tell where this was going with this label, like not really progressing. At the time, it was a pretty rough time in the band, but we signed a contract so we had to have an album ready for them. So we basically wrote [Sneaky] in like two weeks.
EJ: Yeah, we flew through that shit.
GA: With the lyric that you brought up, and other songs, I felt like [with] some other people in the band and the label, that it was a little rushed and things were coming to an end. But did we lose momentum now? No. I think this is the best the band's ever been.
Me and Eric have been in the band the longest, and our newer stuff is way different from the album. It's a little crazy, because it's way more — I don't know, what would you say?
EJ: I don't know, man. It's hard to describe.
GA: It's way more fun. All the new songs we have now, it's just so much fun playing with these guys. Writing, I didn't have to hold back or feel like I had to write a certain type of song for somebody.
N: When you've already done the writing for the next album, and then this one comes out, does it feel like backtracking at all?
EJ: A little bit, yeah.
GA: We actually talked about that. Of course we're selling this record now, so it would be cool to play a couple of [songs].
EJ: But in the past year and a half, they've definitely worked their way out of the live set because we've written all this new stuff. But now the record's coming out, and it's like, "Yo, maybe we should start playing some of those songs again."
N: A lot of Sneaky is really poppy, but in the middle it takes this really dark turn. It made me think of a really dark and heavy Pink Floyd song, and I was wondering where that came from.
EJ: It's funny, dude. That pokes out every once in a while. Especially at practice sometimes. We've actually got a song we refer to as "the Pink Floyd song." It's real jammy, loud, like old Live at Pompeii.
GA: The Christmas song, I wrote it during the holidays. I'm a big fan of the Peanuts cartoon [A Charlie Brown Christmas] and "Christmastime Is Here." To me, that song is great, but it seems really depressing. When I wrote that song, I was focusing on writing a Christmas song but making it kind of dark.
EJ: Christmas isn't happy for everybody, either. It's not all presents and Santa.
N: You guys are in your thirties, and there's a new wave of local bands that are also both poppy and psychedelic. Do you think you've had any influence on bands like the Wild Moccasins or Young Mammals? How do you react when you see bands like that?
EJ: That's a good question. I've noticed this new guard that's shown up all of a sudden — bands like Wild Moccasins and Tontons.
GA: I met Buxton by accident at one of the Houston Press showcases, and they were like, "Yeah, we're big fans and we want to do a show with you guys." I hadn't seen them play and I felt kind of bad, but then I saw them play at the Houston Press awards show and they were great. We've been meaning to hook up a show together, but it's been kind of hard.
The same thing with the Wild Moccasins — they played our CD release party in Austin at the Beauty Bar, and I thought they were really fuckin' good. I hadn't seen them play yet, but they were really cool, and the singer and I got into a good conversation about music.
There's a lot of good bands, and it's cool to see them really young. It's kinda new compared to a few years back, where everyone was the same age.
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EJ: We end up playing places that aren't all-ages a lot of the time, so when we do play shows that are all-ages, it never fails. Every kid in there is like, "Where are you guys from? You guys are from Houston?"
It's cool, but on the other hand it's not. It's like,"Yeah, we've been here for a while. Where have you been?" CHRIS GRAY
With Paris Falls, the Sour Notes, Dizzy Pilot,Ceeplus Bad Knives, DJ Melodic and YouGenious(host), 8 p.m. Friday, April 10, at WarehouseLive (Studio), 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483 or www.warehouselive.com.