When we last heard from Jack Spann, he had just released his second album Beautiful Man from Mars (2017 – Big Boo Music – ASCAP), we noted his penchant for writing story songs propelled by piano hooks. Fans and new listeners alike will find his new CD, Propaganda Man another step forward for Spann as a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. Like that other singer/songwriter Billy Joel, Jack Spann’s narrative story telling style pulls the listener into his songs. Joel has never lacked the ability to write catchy piano hooks and vocal arrangements, but Billy’s recording technique usually involves a host of musicians in the studio. Unlike Joel, Spann used a smaller fraternity of musicians on Beautiful Man from Mars while he himself provided the guitar, bass, vocals, and keyboards on most of the tracks. The demo tracks for Propaganda Man utilized his Treehouse Recording Studio guys Don Kelly (drums), Ben Taylor (guitar), and Mike Preen (bass) with additional keyboard work by co-producer Gary Tanin. Most of the final tracking is attributed Spann, Tanin, and drummer Robb Cecil.
Jack Spann’s first album (Time, Time, Time, Time, Time – 2016) gave us a glimpse of his ability to use vocal inflections to add punch to his lyrics. BMfM saw him add more sonic layers to his songs and Jack has taken another step forward with the arrangements on Propaganda Man. What separates Jack Spann from the Billy Joel school of pop music is the way he weaves the instruments and vocals around the piano hooks that drive the songs. Spann’s songs are not a typical two or three layer cake of verse, chorus, instrumental break. They remind me more of a multi-layered tort with a few different flavored layers inserted in the form of interesting instrumental or vocal snippets that enhance the feel of the whole song. As any one who frequents bake shops will attest: a layer cake is good, but the flavor profile of a many layered tort can make a regular cake seem dull by comparison. Jack Spann has assembled an entire box of tasty torts that will delight your ears.
Here is a quick peek at what Master Baker Spann has assembled for Propaganda Man:
The title track of Propaganda Man is vintage Jack Spann. Two minutes in, the song has shifted gears several times from the guitar picking balladry of the introduction into pumping rock to a dreamy, swirling cloud of sound. As the vocals parts criss-cross in and out of the mix, he sings of ‘crunching numbers’ and ‘equations . . . while the world waits, breathless’ – one can put their own spin on what sounds suspiciously like a social commentary about the politics of spinning information.
Rage in Garden takes us back to Adam and Eve in Eden. There is a lot going on in this track and the bass line keeps the head bobbing and the drums will make the toes tap. Another Spann specialty is evident here: how he changes tempo between various verses and the chorus. Adding horns gives it just enough Jersey Sound flair to qualify as a tune that Little Steven should cover it with his Disciples of Soul.
If they ever make a reboot of that Cold War classic movie parody Dr. Strangelove, I would like to suggest they use All Go Together as the theme song. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, the lyrics make as much sense for the world today as they would for that other Cold War. If it is possible to write an upbeat sounding song about nuclear war, Jack has nailed it here.
Her Majesty put my mind in a Beatles’ frame just from the title. To my delight, it did indeed go in a direction that echoed the Abbey Road vintage of the Fab Four. I especially like the drumming – it is hard to sound like Ringo but they pull it off on this track – one of many elements that give the track this Beatles fan’s stamp of approval.
Have we heard Jack do Motown yet? Gotta Lotta Soul really does sound like a Billy Joel tune recorded in Detroit with Ray Charles at the keys for good measure. After a couple of tempo changes, Spann settles into a Motown groove with a great approximation of Barry Gordie’s secret weapon (The Adantes) on background vocals.
As the title of track six suggests, Lullabye’s tinkling piano and tender lyrics sound like something a father would croon to their new born. The harmony vocal, organ, bass, and drums all occupy different parts of the song but pull it together into a very emotional way. Keeping the family vibe, Spann immediately kicks into the funky Sing Your Own Song where grandpa dispenses life advice to ‘his grandson Jack’. Again, the bass sounds more like a lead instrument here but harmonica and brass also take their place in the arrangement.
Anyone who has toiled in a bar band will appreciate When Joe Sings. Propelled by guitar, piano and (again) pulsing bass, it is a moving acoustic number until the drums are added for the second chorus. The spoken middle eight transitions into a percussion heavy half speed rhythm that makes it another Spann creation that blends more than one musical style into one tune. The song never really speeds up or slows down, but the feel (in the tempo) follows the drum pattern, yet another Jack Spann trick of the trade.
The longest and perhaps most complex track here is Marry the Flag. There isn’t really anything I can compare this to. I kept going back to the Tony Stark line in Ironman 3 when he uncharacteristically says, “I got nothing.” Let me just day at 7 minutes and change, it is a multi-part ‘epic’ that you will need to hear for yourself to decide exactly what is going on in Jack’s head. A hint: he uses other ‘voices’ to tell this story of an encounter that starts on Colorado Highway 6. It would be too easy to say Spann could also be a writer. Perhaps a painter of sonic artwork would be a better description of his talent for baking, writing, painting, and singing stories.
Dead Man’s is an uptempo rocker that lets one’s mind unwind after the twisting tale of Marry the Flag. Possibly the simplest arrangement and vocal on the album, it still has plenty of interesting things going on. The barrelhouse piano and rocking drums make it a good dance tune. Shut The Door closes the album (almost) with piano and bass anchoring the song that is laid back but still moves. Jack’s vocal inflections and what sounds like a harpsichord and the tinkling of glass chimes are used with great effect.
Beautiful Man from Mars closed with a reprise of the title track and Spann again mines this territory to close Propaganda Man. This time, he reprises Lullabye as a mellow instrumental (Sweet Dreams (Lullaby Reprise)). It is just the calming three minutes your brain needs after listening to Jack Spann’s newest gem. This is only a hunch, but I have a feeling that Jack is one of those people who dreams in technicolor and sees music in his head while composing.
WOAS-FM recently received the advance promotional materials for Propaganda Man which is slated for release on July 26, 2019 in CD and Digital formats through Big Boo Publishing. The following information was taken from the material provided by media contact Gary Tanin at Daystorm Music in Milwaukee:
“New York City, NY – Jack Spann has had an incredible couple of years. The Saint Louis native has lived in New York City for the last 18 years and established himself as one of the city’s in-demand keyboardists. His reputation led to an introduction to David Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti who hired him to play on the demos for what would be Bowie’s final album Blackstar.
Spann’s Visconti connection did not end there. It led to an introduction to Milwaukee-based producer Gary Tanin who worked with Spann on his 1st and 2nd solo records, Time, Time, Time, Time, Time, Beautiful Man From Mars, and now on his 3rd upcoming release Propaganda Man.
The album took two years to complete and is different from his last, in that it faces social issues head on and does not shy away from addressing thorny social conundrums. Several guests appear while Spann provides lead vocals, piano, keyboards, guitar, and bass. Cecil Robbington provides drums and percussion along with producer Gary Tanin adding additional keyboards. Spann confesses he draws on the inspiration of having worked with David Bowie on the Blackstar demos.
and www.facebook.com/garytanin .”
Many thanks to Gary Tanin for sending us an advance copy of Propaganda Man to preview. We look forward to sharing Jack Spann’s music with our listeners in August of 2019.
Top Piece Video: Jack Spann live in Milwaukee in 2017