Spirits Having Fun make spindly, unpredictable music that dwells in the gray area between post-punk, jazz and math rock. With members based in both Chicago and New York City, distance-born collaboration shapes the band’s work. However, where some artists might view thousands of miles of separation as a creative challenge, Spirits Having Fun embrace it, and they thrive. Distinct elements of both Midwest indie and Northeastern experimentation seep through on the band’s sophomore album, Two. You can hear echoes of Windy City acts like Moontype and Floatie in its spindly intricacy, but it simultaneously brings to mind the freewheeling, swirling work of Big Apple stalwarts like Standing On The Corner and Onyx Collective. Jumbling a myriad of styles and feels throughout the record’s 42-minute runtime, Two can be a hectic affair, like watching sped-up footage of a major thoroughfare during rush hour. However, it’s this penchant for heady intensity that keeps the album gripping and singular.
Where 2019’s Auto-Portrait embraced quirky no wave and syncopated experimental impulse, Two thrums with the patchouli-tinged essence of ‘70s jam music. On “Hold The Phone,” proggy organ flourishes give way to a Television-esque ripper, which eventually disintegrates into organic ambience. “Broken Cloud” finds Phil Sudderberg’s bouncy drums dueling with deluges of placid analog synthesizer noodling and shimmering guitar harmonics. With its downright psychedelic riffing, “Entropy Transfer Partners” plays like the indie rock version of a Strawberry Alarm Clock song. “Almost the end of the month / And you have nothing to set aside / Spent half your paycheck on rent / Now you’re back where you started again,” Andrew Clinkman sings on the track, maligning what he called “the infinite hellscape of our healthcare system” in a statement. With their tie-dyed electricity, the retro-leaning moments on the record are Pynchonesque and sunbaked. However, they don’t feel inauthentic, and rarely come across like the work of a band bitter about being born in the wrong generation.
Spirits Having Fun are commendably technical songwriters, and Two can sometimes feel like it’s about to rupture into oblivion. “The Leaf Is a Chorus” alternates between frantic guitar plunking and funky verses, driven by boisterous rudimentary percussion that recalls Elvin Jones or Max Roach. On the opener “Silhouette,” carefully orchestrated full band hits contrast Katie McShane’s wide-eyed vocals with brief segments of bombast. “Am There” evolves from beachy dream pop to distraught punk with a spontaneity that evokes a Grateful Dead live show. “Everybody wants to be a star / Everybody wants to drive a car,” McShane sings, her lyrics equally sardonic and childlike. The record’s prettiest and most gossamer moment comes on “A Long Walk in a Sunflower’s Shade,” on which Mort Garson-y keys lay the framework for McShane’s hypnotic, droning vocals. Like sand kicked up by a strong gust of wind, the musicianship on the record takes flight in countless directions at once, swirling around in a way that can be both alluring and disorienting.
At times, the arrangements (or lack thereof) on Two are a bit ostentatious. The album leaves little to latch onto, with melodies, hooks and motifs that come and go with no rhyme, nor reason. “See a Sky” flirts with surreal, hazy melodies, until the chilled-out track suddenly bursts into mathy stringwork and a cowbell-driven beat. “The Sweet Oak” morphs from lackadaisical fusion to ornate, shuffling rock, supported by rapidfire hi-hats and grayscale guitar riffing. In its middle section, “My Machine” sounds a bit like the work of a group of improvisers making an active effort to play incongruously, thanks to its offset lead lines and hefty rhythms.
However, every portion of Two that feels like it’s about to spin out of control quickly reels itself in. Spirits Having Fun are too high-energy to let their music run wild for long, which is reflected in the record’s hasty pacing. “There’s a lot more collaboration on this record, in terms of all of us letting stuff bloom a little bit more,” Clinkman says in the album’s liner notes. The pins-and-needles feeling that the record elicits can be jarring and uncomfortable, but its spastic whiplash is also what helps keep it lively and engrossing.
As a whole, Two occupies an intriguing liminal space between well-honed craftsmanship and unbridled idiosyncrasy. Spirits Having Fun cut their teeth playing together in various forms before settling into their current incarnation, and the members of the band have clearly developed their own language—they speak it throughout Two, slipping between familiar phrases and their own alien tongue. Their latest doesn’t feel shaped by a recording studio, and instead captures the verve of a great jam session between four seasoned players. Two certainly embraces the tropes of contemporary underground rock, but it’s ultimately as indebted to the legacies of 20th century legends like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry as it is to the band’s immediate forebears like Palm and Omni. Similar to a difficult rock-climbing wall, it takes effort to grasp the slippery music of Two. It might not make a ton of sense the first time you hear it, but it’s fascinating enough to keep you coming back for more.
Ted Davis is a culture writer, editor and musician from Northern Virginia, currently based in Los Angeles. He is the Music Editor for Merry-Go-Round Magazine. On top of Paste, his work has appeared in Pitchfork, FLOOD Magazine, Aquarium Drunkard, The Alternative, Post-Trash, and a slew of other podcasts, local blogs and zines. You can find Ted on Twitter at @tddvsss.