SPIRITUALIZED with SOLEDAD BROTHERS at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Sunday and Monday (October 19 and 20), $31. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Groups stripping away the excess baggage of string sections and gospel choirs have become the flavour in rock lately, but if any band could afford to slim down, it was Spiritualized. The group's 2001 disc, Let It Come Down, featured 100 different musicians and took frontman Jason Pierce's already grandiose game plans to epic new levels. Impressive as it was to hear a wall of French horns blaring away, the consensus, even among many hardcore fans, was that bigger wasn't necessarily better. Songs collapsed under their own weight, and much of the record came off as an experiment that got out of hand.
Pierce as much as admitted that himself, canning half his band midway through the tour and continuing with something much rawer. Spiritualized's new Amazing Grace disc is the next step, capturing a more streamlined, aggressive sound. Of course, this being Pierce, stripped-down still means a string and horn section and an inordinate amount of time spent obsessing over the mixing desk.
"This isn't a reaction to Let It Come Down. I've gone into Amazing Grace full of the knowledge of what it's like to make a record with 100 people on it.
"But this wasn't a garage recording, either. It's still me making the record. I was still obsessed with it for three months. I just wanted to keep the energy from the first moment we started playing."
That energy came not from the current crop of sloppy, stripped-down garage rock bands, but from an unlikely source - jazz.
Between scoring the next Spiritualized epic, Pierce was drafted as a guitarist to perform with the free jazz supergroup put together by Spring Heel Jack's John Coxon and Ashley Wales.
Piece admits that he was "utterly fucking terrified" of playing alongside jazz heavyweights like Han Bennink, Matthew Shipp, William Parker and Evan Parker, but the experience proved crucial.
"Han Bennink is the most punk character I've ever met," Pierce laughs. "He has this weird energy and this oblique take on everything that just ripped through me, and what I wanted to do was get that energy of improvisation into a rock and roll record.
"Rock and roll is primarily a rehearsed thing. I thought that if we gave the songs to the band on the day we were going to record them, you'd get the sound of people responding to something they'd never heard in their life before. That's what creates the energy on Amazing Grace.
"I love that feeling of being upended, of being dropped into something you know nothing about. Just when you think that you've got music down and you know what it's all about, someone drops a Jimmy Scott record in your lap or a Dizzy Rascal record. You think, 'Where the hell did this come from?' And that's what playing with these guys was like."
Pierce also found inspiration closer to home. Spinning through his back catalogue to put together the Spiritualized Collected Works best-of (Volume 2 comes next year) was a reminder that for all his elaborate arrangements, Pierce's real strong point, stretching back to his Spacemen 3 days, is in writing very simple pop songs.
"What was pleasantly surprising was that the music didn't sound dated," Pierce insists. "It didn't sound like I'd assumed late-80s music would sound."