"I guess that this record, like a lot of 'debut' albums, is kind of a greatest-hits record, like 'This is my life's work up till now.'
So says Spike Priggen on the occasion of the release of The Very Thing That You Treasure. Though the album, on his own Volare label, is the New York-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist's first under his own name, it's the work of a seasoned songwriter and performer who remains a true believer in the transforming, transcendent potential of pop music.
Priggen has a long and varied musical history, which encompasses numerous highly-regarded bands and notable recording projects. That sense of experience is reflected in the seamless craft and heartfelt insight of the album's 12 songs, which encompass breezy power-pop ("Yesterday"), bittersweet jangle-balladry ("Every Broken Heart"), aggressive garage crunch ("Alright"), airy chamber-pop ("She Used to Be My Baby"), sensitive acoustic introspection ("The Right Thing") and moody prog-psychedelia ("So Good to See You").
"These are some of the songs I liked the most after ten years of writing tunes and making demos, that I thought worked well together as an album," Priggen explains. "There's a lot of sad songs, a lot of which were inspired by various bad relationships with girls/bandmates/friends etc. For some reason, that's what I tend to write about, although in a lot of the songs, the most vehement putdowns are usually directed at myself. But I did try to balance out the sad songs with a few goofy, fun ones. People who don't know me might get a really distorted impression of my happiness level based on the songs. I actually think I'm kinda happy-go-lucky."
The Very Thing That You Treasure (whose title refers to a legendary bootleg tape featuring Nashville radio preacher the Prophet Omega, an excerpt from which appears as one of the CD's unlisted bonus tracks) was recorded by Priggen and longtime pal Adam Lasus (whose voluminous recording credits include work with Helium, Versus and Madder Rose) in a makeshift Brooklyn home studio specially outfitted for the occasion. The sessions featured a virtual who's-who of local musical talent, including guitarist Jon Graboff (Beat Rodeo, Amy Rigby), bassist Scott Yoder (Kevin Salem, Blue Chieftains), keyboardist Joe McGinty (Losers Lounge, Baby Steps), multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer (Blood Oranges, Lisa Loeb), cellist Jane Scarpantoni (R.E.M., Natalie Merchant), and drummers Brian Doherty (They Might Be Giants, Freedy Johnston) and Tom Goss (Freedy Johnston, Jack Bruce).
"Because I tend to write pretty straightforward pop songs, we tried to balance that with some out-there guitar and keyboard sounds," Priggen reports. "Even the acoustic guitars and drums have weird effects on them; we used a lot of lo-fi reverbs, and a lot of cheapo pedals rather than digital stuff."
It wouldn't be wholly inaccurate to say that Spike (nee Michael) Priggen has been spent most of his life preparing to record The Very Thing That You Treasure.
Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, he was inspired at an early age by the raw yet melodic sounds of the original New York/London punk/new wave explosion as well as the hard-edged power-pop of American acts like Cheap Trick, Big Star and The Dwight Twilley Band.
By the age of 14, he had already been swept into the thriving underground scene of his hometown, where he joined and/or formed a series of bands, some of which included such future notables as Miracle Legion mainmen Mark Mulcahy and Ray Neal; Jon Brion, producer/sideman for the likes of Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann, and Dumptruck co-founder Kirk Swan.
Priggen's musical path took a significant turn after he moved to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts, where he studied photography for a year before dropping out and taking a job at the legendary club Danceteria. That gig put him in contact with many of his musical heroes, and he soon formed a minimalist pop combo, the Blue Period, with Danceteria friends Nicole Willis (subsequently lead singer of Repercussions) and Dmitry Brill (later DJ Dmitry of Deee-Lite). That group eventually evolved into the Hello Strangers, an eclectic and ever-mutating pop-rock ensemble that would exist in various incarnations in the ensuing years, with Priggen joined at various times by the likes of Mark Mulcahy, Mark Spencer, Jon Graboff, Jean Caffeine (solo artist and former Pulsallama member), Doug Wygal (Individuals, Wygals), Robert Vickers (Go-Betweens, Lloyd Cole), Dave Schramm (Yo La Tengo, The Schramms), Bill Schunk (Beat Rodeo), Kevin Salem (solo artist and Dumptruck member) and Tada Hirano (Ultra Bide, Blonde Redhead). The 1987 edition of the Hello Strangers released a well-received album, Goodbye, on the Incas label.
In 1985, Priggen moved to Boston for awhile to serve two non-consecutive stints as bassist in the seminal Beantown combo Dumptruck; Priggen's Dumptruck days are chronicled on the archival live disc of Dumptruck's 2001 release, "Lemmings Travel To The Sea.."
Subsequently returning to New Haven and eventually to New York, he relaunched the Hello Strangers while lending his instrumental talents to several other bands, including the Liquor Giants (led by former Gun Club/Pontiac Brothers member Ward Dotson), the Pussywillows (with Elinor Blake, aka April March, and future Candypants leader Lisa Jenio), the Schramms, Big Louise, the Caroline Know and the Streams. He also launched an independent label, #1 Records, to release records by some of those bands, and began dabbling in behind-the-scenes studio work, producing and/or engineering records by the Mad Scene, the Caroline Know and Containe.
During an extended busking jaunt through Europe, Priggen played gigs in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, put together a well-received cover band that played in pubs around Edinburgh, and played and sang on an Edwyn Collins-produced album by former Orange Juice/Aztec Camera member Malcolm Ross.
Upon returning to New York, an abortive liaison with a major label convinced Priggen to pursue his solo career on his own terms, and take the do-it-yourself route to recording and releasing his first album. But The Very Thing That You Treasure's birth cycle was complicated by a series of interruptions, first a serious auto accident that sidelined Priggen for several months, and then a mysterious voice ailment that kept him from singing for several more. While recovering, Priggen took on his first film-soundtrack assignment, composing music for the film Chutney Popcorn in collaboration with Adam Lasus, under the name Patrick Prophette.
Once back on his feet, Priggen quickly reestablished himself on the local scene, with a long-running weekly residency at the Brooklyn bar O'Connor's that quickly became a local institution, setting the stage for release of the long-overdue The Very Thing That You Treasure.
"I'm almost glad it took so long to get this record made, because I think the arrangements have more depth because they've been worked on over a long period of time. Bits and pieces of things various people played on them over the years found their way into this recording and helped make the songs more than they were.
"After struggling for so long to get this album done, I'm just so psyched to be psyched about music again," Priggen concludes. "All I want to do now is play music and write songs."
By Carrie Havranek
Though The Very Thing That You Treasure is the work of an artist you've probably never heard of before, the jangly, catchy pop found on Spike Priggen's debut album comes from someone who's been a part of the New York City music scene since he was a teenager. Priggen's experience runs the gamut from working at the famed club Danceteria to forming Hello Strangers, whose revolving personnel included the likes of Mark Mulcahy (Miracle Legion) and Dave Schramm (Yo La Tengo), to acting as producer/right-hand-man to notable knob-twiddler Jon Brion. Thirty-seven-year-old Priggen co-produced The Very Thing That You Treasure in his own makeshift Brooklyn studio with buddy Adam Lasus (Helium, Versus, Madder Rose), and the no-frills approach is true to the music.
Priggen is bound to draw comparisons to other guitar-playing singer/songwriters whose quirky voices serve as messengers for their memorable melodies. Leadoff track "Every Broken Heart" (RealAudio excerpt) possesses the bittersweet sensibility of Freedy Johnston, while "Alright" (RealAudio excerpt) has the rawness and attitude of Steve Earle. On the latter track, two slow, dueling electric guitars (played by Priggen and Jon Graboff) unleash riffs akin to extended solos, vying for our attention like voices in an argument, while Priggen asks brazenly, "How can you think you're right/ And know you're wrong?/ How long can you keep stringin'/ Yourself along?"
While Priggen covers a singer/songwriter's typical thematic ground - promises, broken hearts, and friendships all figure prominently - the songs are distinguished by his musical versatility. Some tunes are power-pop ("Yesterday" [RealAudio excerpt]) or punk-edged rock ("What Yer Missing"), while others, like "She Used to Be My Baby" (with the ubiquitous Jane Scarpantoni on cello), are languid, heartfelt ballads.
If there is any justice in this teen-popping world, The Very Thing That You Treasure won't get lost on the streets. It's a sweet little treasure that deserves a home.
[Thurs., July 19, 12:00 AM EDT]
Sonicnet.com Rating: 4
Readers' Rating: 5
"The very thing that you treasure is wrapped neatly and nice. Wrapped and unwrapped. Took down and put up." These words, uttered by radio preacher Prophet Omega in a bizarre hidden track, provide Spike Priggen's album with its title, along with a nudge and a wink into the reasoning behind why this album HAD to be made.
Spike Priggen is a guy who's been around the block a few times. He's played with and/or produced so many groups in New York, Boston, and other northeast locales that to mention them all would require a lot more bandwidth. The short list would include working with members of bands like Yo La Tengo, Dumptruck, Containe, The Schramms, Blonde Redhead, and The Go-Betweens. The long list might mention Deee-Lite.
Priggen has usually been a side-man, out of the spotlight but providing the little details that make the stars look good. For years, though, Priggen has been writing his own material, and it's uniformly strong stuff, clearly much beloved by all the players assembled. The Very Thing that You Treasure is, quite simply, an amazing album. From the first track, a gorgeously reverby, jangly pop ballad called "Every Broken Heart," you know you're into something good. Priggen's voice is kind of nasal and a little bit awkward, but there is a gentleness to it that is immediately charming, reminiscent of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's otherworldly croon.
One song, "Alright," commences with some studio noise, a chunky riff, and then a dose of heavy garage rock, with swirls of dueling Leslie'd guitars that somehow combine to create a faux-Hammond sound. The whole soup sounds like the kind of recipe Matthew Sweet has been trying to perfect for years. Priggen and co. have handily beaten him to it.
From there, the band swings around in another direction again and launches into "She Used To Be My Baby," a gentle acoustic song with guitar, cello, and piano leading into a full band swell, revolving around a sweet, melancholy chorus that goes "Once there was a girl / do anything I told her / once there was a girl / buy anything I sold her / once there was a girl / lay my head upon her shoulder / once there was a girl / how I wish that I could hold her / like I'd hold her."
After that, the band again proves that it can do anything it wants. Priggen has the balls to name a track "Yesterday," and then backs it up with a solid Monkees-like romp through a galloping breakup song with the perfect chorus: "Yesterday you couldn't live without me." All the while, a Hammond organ anchors the tune while a snaky guitar line slips up and around the proceedings and Priggen makes like Micky Dolenz. Brilliant. This song should go on mix tapes all summer long.
Spike's backing band on The Very Thing that You Treasure is the kind of dream combo that makes singer/songwriters' mouths water all over the world. Players on loan from Freedy Johnston's and Jay Farrar's bands help out; members of Beat Rodeo, They Might Be Giants and The Psychedelic Furs show up; along for a few rides as well is Jane Scarpantoni, a cellist who has played on so many records (from Helmet to the Indigo Girls) that she's pretty much become synonymous with the word "cello."
Bringing all of this together is co-producer Adam Lasus, who has worked with bands as diverse as Gigolo Aunts, Helium, Mark Mulcahy (Miracle Legion), Clem Snide and Madder Rose. Lasus' light touch at the controls allows the players' performances to shine through naturally. The production is crisp and engaging-the songs feel really organic and accessible.
My favorite track: a mandolin-laced slow country number called "I'm In Love." A sly hillbilly companion to Big Star's "Thirteen," Priggen grinningly sings "I'm in love with every girl in this town / I'm in love with every thing in this world / I'm not gonna watch TV anymore / I'm gonna study hard and do all my chores / I tried to tell you but you'd never understand / I'm in love with every girl." It's one of those songs that perfectly sums up what it means to be a teenager, and transports the listener immediately to the time and place when they experienced those feelings. And the best part about it is that Priggen doesn't feel the need to beat you over the head with details. The lyrics above constitue pretty much the whole song (albeit with a little more repetition), and it doesn't need anything else.
"So Good To See You," one of the strongest tracks on the record, is saved for the closer. It's an ethereal, almost psychedelic love song with echoey falsetto vocals and a melody (and a Mellotron) that sounds for all the world like "If You Were Here" by The Thompson Twins. Who gets away with ending his pop record this way? It's a beautiful moment and a fantastic way to wrap things up. And if John Hughes ever gets back to making good teen films, this one's gotta be the love theme.
Priggen says on his website that this record is "like a lot of 'debut' albums, kind of a greatest-hits record, like 'This is my life's work up till now.'" Priggen's life up 'til now has included 10-plus years of writing and performing, perfecting his craft, and these songs back that up. A remarkably assured initial offering, TVTTYT also offers up a veritable trease trove of hidden tracks, beginning with the aforementioned radio preacher whose on-air ramblings gave this collection its title, and ending with "'Til It All Falls Apart," a lovely, Latin-flavored track with a soft little Casio samba beat anchoring a wash of guitars and bass. The song sounds a lot like a really good outtake from one of those latter-day, moody R.E.M. records that no one ever actually heard.
In between, there's a long, hysterical recording of an unnamed band in a recording studio, trying desperately to get part of a song down properly on tape, their tempers raising exponentially ("Are you gonna try the fucking part that the producer came up with, or are you gonna stalemate the evening like a juvenile buffoon?") until the producer's voice is heard, telling the players that perhaps they should call it a night. The inclusion of this piece says a lot about the work involved in making a great record, and stands as a testament to the 10 years Priggen waited to be able to make this record. It was worth the wait.
Â - Scout