The phrase “sob story” doesn’t really have much to do with being sad. It’s something you say with a slight eye-roll regarding a melodramatic diatribe that you don’t really care about, as in, “Gary, I’m not in the mood to hear some sob story about how you lost your wallet on the subway after drinking 12 LITs”. But this, Spectrals’ sophomore LP, is not that kind of sob story. Tracks like “Something To Cry About” and “In A Bad Way,” while they might sound worthy of tissue-stuffed nostrils and snotty dry heaving, are really dry-eyed reminiscences of past high-level bawling efforts; a 6 month old popcorn grease stain on a newly thrifted sweatshirt. If you tell a truly sad story, no one ever calls it a sob story, unless you’re Louis Jones, poised to recount a memory that tightens your throat and preemptively mocking yourself before anyone else can.
Spectrals (a collaboration between Louis Jones and his brother Will) has never been the kind of band to jump on the, er, wagon, and Sob Story is no exception. While other musicians scramble to figure out what comes after chillwave, or if this song would work better with a melodica instrumental break, Spectrals have consistently maintained a pre-punk garage and blues aesthetic. Sob Story was produced by former Girls bassist Chet “JR” White, who probably deserves some credit for the shinier vibes in this album than in Spectrals’ 2011 effort Bad Penny (back when the band was just Louis). Bad Penny is Jones before he steps in the shower, when an entire day’s crud is caked on his skin, and Sob Story is the post-wash, steamed-up Jones, maybe with some soap still in his crimson quaff. This clean-shaven shift is most evident on “Keep Your Magic” a toothier, more confident take on “Keep Your Magic Out Of My House,” first released on a split 7” with Fair Ohs in 2010.
I don’t know if it has something to do with his ginger roots, but Louis reminds me of Rick Astley most of the time: His voice is an anachronism in his body. He sounds like an amalgamation of Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly (stuttering, vibrating, wavering, droopy, fake-virginal), but he looks like your weird cousin who, on certain holidays, you’re sexually attracted to. On Sob Story, Jones seems to have almost perfectly pinpointed the sound his voice is made for, and stretched it out a bit. It’s doo-wop like American Bandstand, but grimy. Like American Bandstand except the band playing is recovering from a drowning incident. Like American Bandstand except all the teens have just discovered mescaline and are trying to hide it from their parents. It’s also rockabilly bar music, the kind that’s most often played to a poor-hygiened crowd of three from a dusty stage. All you need to transport yourself from suburbia to big-night-out-in-a-rural-town are tracks like “Heartbeat Behind” where a rustic guitar collides with drums that sound like a thick-handed giants clapping. The cymbals are a Jim Beam-fueled bar fight: pint glasses crashing to the floor and the sound of someone chewing deep-fried onion rings.
Tracks like “Friend Zone” has Jones leaning on the strength of his vocals, paired with little but stark guitars. When he sing-speaks “You wouldn’t be seen dead with me,” it’s difficult not to imagine Jones crying alone on a bar stool, tears dripping off his chin and into some watery beer. The album’s title track is similar late-night saloon karaoke. Jones’ voice sounds far away, accompanied by sleepy drums and sorrowful, drunk guitars who have no more love to give. The Jones brothers are British though, and this is something to keep in mind. Sob Story isn’t Budwieser-drenched, flag-waving Americana where your pick-up can get you through any hardship—it’s a British kind of drunk, which means a drunk that happens in the rain, with warm beer, in a once-thriving, now-deserted industrial neighborhood, and other stereotypes of U.K. life.
But things aren’t all salty cheeks and lost loves. “Limousine” is a parade of thumping drums and eager-to-please guitars that climb on top of each other like a hands-in sports huddle, while Jones repeats “I dream, I dream, I dream” in a voice like his nose is full of chlorine water. “Milky Way” is a bit cliche, using a sticky fly-strip to catch hacked-up lyrics like “She couldn’t be you if she tried.” And with lightsaber guitar blasts crashing into post-punk darkness, it sounds out of place. But it’s clear from even the most half-hearted listen that Spectrals have found their niche space on Sob Story. They’re the self-elected officials of the down-and-out, that miner who just lost his parakeet, or Morrissey alone somewhere in Manchester, riding high on his ego and suffocating in his loneliness.