It’s been a long road for Spiral Stairs, aka Scott Kannberg, since the breakup of Pavement. His albums recorded under the name Preston School Of Industry were unfairly maligned and that group dissipated without a whimper. His first solo album under his own guise, The Real Feel was a limpid affair, with none of the spark or wit of his previous group. The Pavement reunion itself promised a lot but ended after a run of shows in 2010. It’s been difficult for a man whose Pavement material was solid and leant towards great on some releases (‘Kennel District’ and ‘Mussl Rock (Is A Horse In Transition’ from the Wowee Zowee era) and towards poor on some others (‘Hit The Plane Down’ and ‘Passat Dream’ I’m looking at you.) Kannberg’s second solo album as Spiral Stairs, Doris And The Daggers, does little to buck this downward trend.
What’s instantly noticeable on album opener ‘Dance (Cry Wolf)’ is the deepening of Spiral’s vocal range. Where previously he yelped his way through tracks, his voice now sits in a lower register. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it’s often reminiscent of various other deep mono-tonal singers, like Paul Banks of Interpol or Bryce Dessner of the National. The song itself is of average quality, with a few nods to Bowie in the chord changes in the bridge and in the outro. A perfectly serviceable start.
‘Emoshuns’ follows this up and it’s without doubt the best song on the album. Kannberg reaches back into his upper register for the pre-chorus while the wordless “Ooooh’s” that punctuate the chorus remind the listener of his best Pavement material. If the whole LP was of this calibre it would be a great indie rock comeback album. Unfortunately the quality control falls off a cliff after this.
We go from the sublime to the ridiculous with the next track, ‘Dundee Man’, which is ostensibly a song about Kannberg’s love for a woman he met it in Scotland. Really it’s just an excuse for Spiral to shoehorn every single reference to Scottish towns and cultural touchstones that he knows. His mangling of the pronunciation of Edinburgh grates and the whole exercise should have been relegated to b-side status, where even then it would remain un-listened to on the flip of whatever sorry 7” it was confined to.
While the rest of the album doesn’t exactly plumb these depths it also doesn’t get much better. ‘AWM’ is a poor Silver Jews knockoff (is it really David Berman’s vocal tics Kannberg is trying to ape on this record?) The intro riff to ‘No Comparison’ directly rips off Deerhunter’s live rendition of ‘Rainwater Cassette Exchange’ while the rest of the song relies on the same three note bass line and goes nowhere. ‘The Unconditional’ is a song that is sweet in sentiment, referring as it does to Kannberg’s love for his daughter but the delivery is faux Destroyer, with horn sections in the chorus and without the lyrical wit to carry it. I could go on about the rest of the songs but I won’t.
It’s a shame to criticise the album so harshly. Spiral is an indie rock veteran, a nice man and devoted parent who has devoted years to the cause. Unfortunately for him reputation can only carry you so far. Doris And The Daggers is a record that is mostly bereft of ideas, cribbing notes from the last twenty years of indie rock’s worksheet. If Kannberg continues to make music (and I hope he does) then I hope he finds the songwriting touch a bit more consistently next time.