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Spencer Albee – Maine’s pop mastermind

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Musician releases 20th career record “Relentlessly Yours”

In a perfect world, “Relentlessly Yours” - the 20th career album from Portland-based songwriter and musician Spencer Albee - would be a #1 best-selling blockbuster.

Consisting of eleven songs brimming with infectious pop hooks and bearing a production which manages to sound both futuristic and retro, it’s an album that deserves to be heard by all who still covet melodic pop songwriting as an art form. Clocking in at just over 37 minutes, the record is a mini-masterpiece.

Albee is well known as a former member of the Maine bands Rustic Overtones and As Fast As, bands with whom he toured the US and Canada; he managed to work with both David Bowie and Imogen Heap along the way.

Over the last two-plus decades, Albee has had the opportunity to record in studios both grand and modest. For “Relentlessly Yours,” he tried something new – recording a record at home.

“I just thought ‘I have the gear, I have the space, I just moved into a house. Let’s try it,’” Albee told me.

Albee says he subscribes to what he calls the Tom Waits theory, referring to the musician’s penchant for recording in unusual locales.

“When he recorded ‘Bone Machine’ (1992), Tom Waits recorded in what was basically a meat locker in New York City,” Albee explains. “His thinking was that the music was still in the walls, it hadn’t been drawn out yet. I like that idea that if you record in a space where there hasn’t been a lot of recording, there’s still music in the walls.”

Knowing that Albee is a hopelessly committed Beatles-phile (along with a band of friends, he has hosted a series of sellout concerts called “Beatles Night” each Thanksgiving weekend for the past 14 years), I mentioned that some of the personal touches heard on “Relentlessly Yours” reminded me of the qualities present on two Paul McCartney albums - both largely recorded at home. The casualness of “McCartney” (1970) and the quirkiness of “McCartney II” (1980) are characteristics heard on Albee’s release. Stray voices and off-mic comments, occasionally heard before or after songs, help to give the album a from the hearth quality.

“It’s interesting that you mention that because I had been listening to ‘McCartney II’ a lot,” Albee says. “My record sounds nothing like his, but what I liked about that album is that you hear a blues song, followed by a song with a sequencer. He just did it because he felt like it.

“McCartney had just signed with Columbia Records for a vast sum of money,” Albee continued. “The pressure for him to put out a record that was a huge hit must have been enormous but he went and made the littlest, weirdest thing he could (laughs). I think it’s one of his best records because there’s such a freedom to it. In the face of all of these obligations, he doesn’t care about pleasing anyone but himself. There’s a real joy to it.”

While “Relentlessly Yours” features more organic and acoustic-based instrumentation than the 1980 McCartney record, it does feature synthesized sounds on every track - even if they don’t sound overtly synthetic.

“I had never done it that way before,” Albee explains. “I had used electronic drums before only in the context of adding a different texture or in addition to real drums. I didn’t want to make a record that sounds like a synth drums record.”

For the follow-up to 2015’s sublime “Mistakes Were Made,” where he played every instrument, including drums, Albee says he decided to use programmed drums for all of “Relentlessly Yours;” he succeeded in making that fact virtually undetectable to the listener.

A fan of producer and musician Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, CeeLo Green, Gorillaz, James Mercer, The Black Keys) Albee says that he appreciates the way the artist uses programmed drums in his recordings.

“I’ve never asked or read up on it but his records sound like he’s using synth drums,” Albee says of Danger Mouse. “My goal was to make a record with synthetic drums, but for the listener not to notice they’re synthetic.”

While the foundation of Albee’s new songs on “Relentlessly Yours” incorporate a largely synthesized rhythm section, he layers them with more organic sounds.

“Once you start stacking 12-string guitars, pianos and Wurlitzer – all of these organic instruments - you have all of these human elements on top. You start stacking all of these things on top of science, everything’s on beat but you have all this jingly-jangly stuff on top that pushes and pulls and moves around the beat. I’ve been making records by myself for a while now but when you listen as a whole, it kind of sounds like a band.”

“Relentlessly Yours” opens with the sound of Albee’s friend, business partner, co-producer and co-mixer Karlyn Daigle asking (off-mic) “Are you cutting this?” followed by his affirmative response and then the charging, chiming, 12-string acoustic stomp of “Just Like Clockwork.”

“At a certain point, Karlyn started popping around, probably to check on my mental health,” Albee laughed. “I would occasionally email her something I was working on. ‘Just Like Clockwork’ was the turning point for the record for me - when I knew that what I was doing was super-fresh.”

According to Albee, the title of the album was originally going to be “Just Like Clockwork.”

“Then I remembered that Queens of The Stone Age had released a record a few years ago called ‘Like Clockwork,’” he says.

Albee was taken with the idea of musically conveying the image of the inner workings of an old clock.

“If you listen to ‘You Swept Me Off My Feet,’ you notice the chorus. I visualized removing the back of an old clock and you see all the gears working together. This part works because that part is working. If one thing fails, the whole thing falls apart. I pictured the record being like this quirky machine – like clockwork. So that’s why ‘Just Like Clockwork’ opens the record. It has this nerdy anthemic quality.”

The lion’s share of “Relentlessly Yours” was recorded at home, with the exception of some key tracks recorded during a sojourn at the Wildcat Inn in Jackson, New Hampshire.

“I spent about four or five days there just wood-shedding,” Albee told me. “I packed my entire studio into the car to set up at the Wildcat in this house they have called ‘The Igloo.’ I’d go out in the morning and have coffee and breakfast and come back and work for the day. I’d take a break and go for a walk, come back and go to work. Have dinner, listen to what I’d recorded and then go to the pub at the Wildcat in the evening and talk until I was tired.”

Albee says that the entirety of the Traveling Wilburys-esque “You Swept Me Off My Feet” was recorded at the Wildcat.

“I spent a lot of time on that song but I remember getting really frustrated with it. I didn’t like it for a while so I put it away and worked on another song called ‘Too Much.’”

On that soulful song - nearly cut from the record because he was afraid he hadn’t cracked it - Albee is joined by longtime friend and musical cohort Sara Hallie Richardson on vocals.

“On ‘Too Much,’ I was trying to tap into an old-school ‘SNL’ vibe,” Albee says. “You know, kind of like Paul Simon in a fedora. You picture a still shot of New York City with the steam coming out of the manhole covers. I was trying to figure out what to do with the solo. It was very frustrating. I tried to play it on guitar – I tried it on keys, synthesizer. I tried all the different combinations.”

He found the perfect solution by playing an elegantly-constructed and heartfelt sax solo, effectively conjuring the vibe he was searching for.

At this point in the process, Albee wasn’t sure what he had. Was it the genesis of a new album, he wondered? 

“I didn’t know if I had tapped into the vein of the record yet. So I did a bunch of other stuff including a cover of Aerosmith’s ‘What It Takes,’ just to see if I could do it.”

Albee ultimately issued that cover song along with three other outtakes on the limited edition “It’s Not You It’s Me,” released on Record Store Day in April. One hundred numbered copies were pressed and are available (as of this writing) from Bull Moose stores. Albee remains the top-selling local artist in Bull Moose history.

Sometimes an artist really is their own worst critic. Frustrated at his perceived lack of progress and focus, Albee hoped that his retreat to the Wildcat Inn, in the shadow of the White Mountains, would clear his head.

“I don’t like the feeling of not knowing what this thing I’ve been working on is going to be,” Albee says. “Sometimes you just can’t see the forest for the trees, so I went back to ‘You Swept Me Off My Feet’ to review what I had. I suddenly realized that it was finished. I don’t know why I was so overwhelmed. At that moment, I just welled up. I thought ‘I know what I’m doing now’ so I came home and all of the other songs started lining up.”

A significant difference between “Relentlessly Yours” and Albee’s previous work is that the new album is available on vinyl – something he has always wanted to do.

“I’ve always made records with a ‘side one’ and ‘side two’ in mind but this is my first record that I’ve put out on vinyl,” he says of the lush package.

“I was raised on the LP, where you have two distinct sides with a breath in the middle. That’s how I listen to records.”

For the vinyl version of the album, Albee partnered with Portland Dry Goods, a company which sells high-end casual clothing and wares from their store on Commercial Street in downtown Portland.

“It’s a store with really nice things,” Albee says of the company. “They do great jackets and shoes and they are really into vinyl. For me, the vinyl experience is how we wanted people to hear ‘Relentlessly Yours.’”

Inspired by some of the lavish vinyl packaging he loved from his youth, Albee took a similar route for his record’s vinyl counterpart.

“I love the way the jacket feels on your fingers – the way the art looks when you open it up. We also included posters, stickers and the CD. The vinyl sounds tremendous. They did a great job cutting it and Steve Drown did a great job with the mastering.”

Speaking of the album artwork, Albee says the mysterious cover image for “Relentlessly Yours” resulted from a visit to his doctor’s office.

“She had taken the lights down and there it was,” Albee says of the human eye model seen in the image. “I took that photo with my iPhone, of all things. As a cover, it’s striking. It’s looking at you. There’s something to be said for how naked that eye is. And the record is kind of an emotional expose. I minced no words with the lyrics.”

The lyrics for the songs on “Relentlessly Yours” bear relation to those on 2015’s “Mistakes Were Made” in that they pertain to the memory of what was once a substantial romantic relationship. As such, the record offers state-of-the-heart lines delivered at times matter-of-factly and in other moments more metaphorically, all as an aid to crafting an image in the mind of the listener.

“In one line, I might be very direct, but there are other areas where I’m kind of painting a word picture,” Albee says. “It’s my goal to sing a combination of words that might conjure an image.”

Once “Relentlessly Yours” was complete, following several masterings and a round of remixes, Albee stepped away from the project for six months, which proved to be a life-changing decision.

“I had a summer and met my wife. All of the misery and sorrow that surrounded the creation of that record…” his voice trailed off, but we know how that sentence was going to end.

Keeping in mind that Albee has perfected the art of making sad songs sound joyous and life-affirming, I asked him how a deliriously happy Spencer Albee record might sound?

“It would probably be a down-tempo doom-metal record,” was his deadpan response. “I don’t know what that would sound like. We’ll find out together.”

Albee has once again found joy in performing live, putting together a five-piece band of familiar faces, to bring “Relentlessly Yours” to the stage.

Upon the record’s release in May, the band embarked on a one-day “world tour,” hitting 10 Maine towns in 10 hours. Each of the towns on the tour was named for a foreign country.

“I’ve had this idea since 2002, to promote an album by performing a show in every town. We managed to do 10 of them in one day,” Albee recalls of the rain-soaked day spent canvassing the state with his band and friends in the Maine Brew Bus.

“I can say with confidence that for the first time since As Fast As, I’m now part of a band that I’m really keen for people to see,” Albee says. “It’s a great band and a really good show. It’s been all about the records for about 10 years which has been fine because that’s where I was at. But now, going forward, it’s about the live show.”

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Upcoming Spencer Albee Live Dates:

July 9 – Cold River Radio Show – Intervale, NH

August 11 – 3S Artspace – Portsmouth, NH

August 12 – Thompson’s Point – Portland, ME (with Guster)

August 18 – Waterville Rocks! – Waterville, ME

August 30 – Earth at Hidden Pond – Kennebunk, ME

September 8 – Stone Mountain Arts Center – Brownville, ME

September 16 – Biddeford River Jam – Biddeford, ME

September 22 – Criterion Theatre – Bar Harbor, ME

October 14 – Frontier – Brunswick, ME

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