Album Review: The Spinto Band – Cool Cocoon

[Spintonic; 2013]

For the first eight years of their existence, the Spinto Band were just a couple of high school kids screwing around with new instruments and a four-track recorder. Albums from that period such as Mersey and Reno or the concept album Roosevelt. or the compilation Sam Raimi are riddled with wacky instrumentation, pitch-shifted vocals, and juvenile humor that suggests some of the songs were conceived with a “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” mentality. Since then, the band has gone through a number of changes in their sensibilities, their lineup, and their record labels, though the group’s core remains the singing/songwriting team of Nick Krill and Thomas Hughes, whose growth as songwriters since the days before the Good Answer EP is nothing if not impressive. The band’s metamorphosis presents itself in colorful fashion on Cool Cocoon, their fourth proper release. Though it comes merely nine months after the sprightly but lackluster Shy Pursuit, it doesn’t sound rushed at all. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite: Cool Cocoon is the Spintos’ most compelling and assured effort since Nice and Nicely Done.

Over the years since their debut, the Spintos had carved a very particular pop niche. Caffeinated, tightly-wound, and aloof, their style persisted and developed over three releases, but when Shy Pursuit came around after a four-year hiatus, it had begun to wear thin. But Cool Cocoon finds them broadening their sonic palette and spreading their wings to show colors we’d never seen in them before. It boasts songs ranging from bittersweet and melancholic, to peppy yet wry, to sunny and blissful, all the while maintaining a warm atmosphere that’s perfect for a lazy summer’s day or a cold winter’s night.

The caffeine is still there, though, although in smaller doses on the twee-leaning “Amy + Jen,” the handclap-heavy and yelpy “She Don’t Want Me,” and the galloping clangor of “Na Na Na.” Elsewhere, the Spintos are more mellow than hyperactive. Nick Krill’s mid-album ballad “Look Away” bares a melancholic side of the band not seen since it was hinted at on “Mountains,” and which we see again almost immediately on Hughes’ downbeat “Static.”

However, it’s in the middle of the energy spectrum where Krill and Hughes really knock it out of the park. Lead single and lead track “Shake It Off” begins with a couple seconds of noise before a single piano note begins the tune; a mid-tempo breakup song by Krill, whose restrained delivery suggests relief with very slight trepidation. “Enemy” is a wistful, quirky pop number from Hughes that’s darkened by the prevailing conflict between the singer and the object of his (dis)affection. “What I Love” is a honeyed love ballad that manages to be sweet without being too cloying. The strongest showings come on a couple of Hughes numbers. The slow-burning album centerpiece “Memo” builds gracefully into a gorgeous, heart-tugging pop ballad punctuated by xylophone, mandolin, and irresistible vocal harmonies. The “Tell me I’m right / Tell me I’m wrong / Over and over again” chorus is one of the best that this band has produced. Then, album closer “Breath Goes In” builds from softly plucked mandolin arpeggios to a grand pop waltz, complete with swelling ballroom-dance strings that conjure images of swirling skirts and Busby Berkeley routines.

But for all the record’s professionalism and pleasantry, Cool Cocoon doesn’t break new ground in the greater scheme of things. Though it shows the Spinto Band have considerable range when it comes to their craft, it’s impressive almost solely on those merits. It has potential to win the band a couple of new fans, and old fans will certainly find something to love on here, whether or not they appreciate the Spintos’ mellower side, but it’s not going to break them into the ranks of indie royalty any time soon. “I feel like it’s been forever since I’ve been impressed,” Hughes sings on “Amy + Jen,” echoing the sentiment of many a Spinto fan who have waited for something as impressive as Nice and Nicely Done and have finally received it in Cool Cocoon. For many of those who’ve not heard the band before, the more accurate observation comes earlier in the same song: “From what I hear, it’s pretty good.”