REVIEWS & PRESS
Review: Jay Spears - What's Not to Like?
It's not easy being a politically engaged queer artist. On the one hand, there is the instinct to puncture pomposity and pretention (ie, to get your dick out), and on the other, the desire to stand up for your dignity as a human being (ie, to keep it buttoned up). Jay Spears is engaged in a project: the creation of a fictitious homotopia, in which old-fashioned, folksy values are reclaimed for the queer folk. On the whole it is a gently comic vision, but it is always subtly subversive and it occasionally erupts into full-on political activism. Spears is an eccentric and an original, less pretentious, and on a tighter budget, than the established gay pop stars, but funnier, more radical and more now.
A recap: the
first CD, Boy Howdy, was a ragbag of songs in a somewhat loose
assortment of styles, unified by Spears' hilarious wordsmithing and
strident personality. Here was a man torn between lusting over firemen
and thinking up triple rhymes:
The key-note was
comedy. There were stories about flaunting your hot date in front of
disappointed rivals, guys who come up with inadequate excuses when they
cancel ("He got a new puppy so he had to stay home"), days from hell
when you drop your wallet in the toilet. The stand-out track was the
delirious I Like Mike ("I like Mike, what's not to like?") a hot voodoo
swing number with duelling saxes and a chorus of studs ("We like
Mike!"). Here Spears set out his stall as to his vision of modern gay
sexuality. The musical and cultural references are consciously retro;
'50s wholesomeness/squareness is subsumed into the homo agenda. The
lyric reads like Tennessee Williams straying into a Jane Austen novel,
the refined narrator gently insisting on proper behaviour from his
brutish ball-playing admirer:
The new CD, Playin' On My Team, has a thicker, more confident sound, and the eclectic elements coalesce into a signature style, guitar-pop with an agenda. Once again he is supported by his Harmonious Hetero Homeboys and other guest stars. The drums sound better, the backing vocal arrangements are excellent as ever and there's great work from solo instrumentalists (the spectre of Brian May continues to hover magisterially over the feast). Spears himself plays guitar, bass, mouth organ and banjo. In other words, this is not an album thrown together on someone's Apple Mac in twenty minutes.
The hilarity is less manic this time, tempered by more depth and atmosphere. Swept Away describes a swimming accident on a camping trip, and yields a nice goose-bumps moment when you realise that Spears is actually talking about something else: no matter how wholesome or well-meaning we may be, sex (or does he just mean life?) is a force of nature and it's bigger than us. We could be happily married one minute and a lonesome cowboy the next. A haunting harmonica part (by Ken Deifik) chills the warmth of the campfire guitar. Perfect.
On Who Is This
Guy? Spears lets go of his compulsion to amuse, and allows himself to
be a poet, accompanied by a gorgeous gypsy violin (Darius Campo) and
sexy Rawhide back-up vocals:
One of Spears' strands is the depression-era misery-ballad. On Boy Howdy we got the Lou Reed-esque gloom-fest Nothin'. Similar in format is the new My Belinda, in which he duets with regular guest vocalist Annie Combs. But there's nothing hetero about it: what we hear is the heart-warming sound of a pouf and a dyke whining simultaneously, and in harmony.
Jay Spears is an
exuberant lyricist who manages, on the whole, to steer clear of any
suggestion of showtunes (he's more cinematic than theatrical).
Listening to him, one has the pleasant sensation of being massaged by
He's a good vocalist in the sense that Dylan is a good vocalist: it's all about delivery. For some listeners this will be a stumbling-block. (Diana Krall fans may need some convincing.) He throws himself into his songs with an abandon that at times can sound demented. Personally I find this a feature. It makes me want to sing along as I do the washing up. He will hurl himself into dangerous narratives like the HIV-positive date and the dying mother, he will cover a camp old bubblegum number (My Boyfriend's Back) that maybe doesn't quite suit his voice, he will rant against born-again Christians ("Roll up the Bill of Rights and wap! wap! wap! 'em on the head!") But then, as he says himself, "walks on thin ice never before felt so nice." Even the questionable cover-version contributes, like a brush-stroke on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, to the glory of the whole, with its Austen-esque cry, "My boyfriend's back, he's going to save my reputation!"
Jay Spears is
funny, angry, sexy, generous and badly-behaved. He enjoys himself more
than a pop star should. He has no interest in being cool or post-modern
or evasive. He is a true heir of the '60s, when style and political
engagement were more congruent, and pop music had more spiritual
energy. He takes Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic battle-cry,
It would be easy to dismiss him as a clown, but on closer inspection his work is quite profound. By drawing on a wide range of folksy musical traditions, some of them from outside of pop's usual blues-based tradition, he is implicitly queering history: we were gypsies, cowboys, peasants and immigrants; we were on the Rive Gauche when Picasso and Bunuel were mouthing off homophobia; we were there when everyone else was having fun at the high school prom. He also takes on the fact that the era of the closet is by no means over. It is of course partly a Village People fantasy to sing of gay firemen, jocks and mechanics, but that doesn't mean the real thing isn't out there - or in there, if we are talking closets.
If Jay Spears
were taken from us tomorrow, the Bougainvillea Waltz would be his
monument. Over a simple busker's guitar-line, he goes off on an
entirely silly rhapsody about, yes, bougainvilleas, the sort of thing
no ambitious young X-factor contender would dream of risking. It's a
moment of madness, pleasure and vulnerability, and only he could get
away with it:
He has sensibly included the song on both his CDs, the only difference being that a breezy Parisian squeeze-box line has been added for the Playin' On My Team version. A man needs to get his monument right.
Never burn a Jay Spears CD: your friends are going to need the lyric sheet, and will enjoy the cranky graphics (bougainvilleas are a unifying theme). At www.jayspears.com and www.cdbaby.com you can hear extracts of his songs and see a couple of demented videos.
I leave you with
a typically fabulous couplet from Smak Dem Christians Down, an instant
gay lib classic which should be blasted regularly from rooftops and
sung at the end of dinner parties. I would also suggest that Jay Spears
CDs be given out in schools with milk and cookies.
Spears Building a Career on Homo Humor
In 2001, Jay Spears experienced heartbreak for the very first time. And like many musicians who've loved and lost, Spears found solace in songwriting. Unlike most musicians, however, Spears writes a damn funny break-up song.
"What does he do when I'm feeling blue? Nothin'," he croons on "Nothin'." "What does he say when I've had a bad day? Nothin'"
The song appears on Boy Howdy, Spears' 2002 debut and arguably the wittiest take on dysfunctional gay love most people will ever hear.
That said, Spears wasn't exactly looking for an audience when he first made Boy Howdy. One of those home-made discs made it into the hands of the organizers of the Out Music Awards. Spears was nominated for "Album of the Year" in 2003, and the publicity snowballed from there. Boy Howdy made the "Best of 2003" list on This Way Out's Audiofile, and a video for his song "I Like Mike" got regular spins on Logo.
Now the newly minted "homo pop" star has released his long-awaited follow-up, Playin' on My Team, featuring songs inspired by, among other things, more failed efforts to find love.
Like Boy Howdy, Playin' on My Team features ambitious, sometimes hilariously over-the-top arrangements that testify to Spears' background playing in orchestras for theatre productions. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album's rip-roaring, mercilessly-hooky closer "Smak Dem Christians Down," destined to become one of those songs queers sing along to at the top of their lungs during weekend apartment-cleaning sessions.
Unlike Boy Howdy, Playin' wasn't inspired by a major emotional crisis for Spears, but fortunately every-day gay life seems to provide the comedic songwriter with plenty of raw material. Rice queens, broken gaydar and cheapskate friends all figure into the repertoire.
Spears has a habit of infusing his tunes with a wink and a smile.
Many of the songs on his long-awaited second full-length disc "Playin' On My
feature his humorous side on prominent display, such as in the title
track, the electro-hop of "Drive Time," "Cheapskate," and the wonderful
"Smak Dem Christians Down." That's not to say that Spears doesn't have
a serious side, as you can hear on "Swept Away" and "Who Is This Guy?"
yeah. (condensed review in10/06's Challenge - GAAMC.org's
Dear Jay - You've
done it again! "Playin' On My Team" is a fabulous (and
important) CD & I thank you so much for not
only for writing those terrific tunes (except for "My
Boyfriend's Back," of which you deliver a splendid
rendition, if you'll excuse the expression), arranging and
playing/singing them, and producing this overall gem. I
particularly love the title song, "Sean, Sean," "Drive Time,"
and "Smak Dem Christians Down" with the great choral part.
The others are notable as well; I loved hearing Ron play his accordion
on the album. Can't wait 2 C the video(s). XXAlix.
More listener reviews:
Spears: Gay Troubadour and Musical Alchemist Extraodinaire!
Jay -- I already have the hard copy, and just have to say that My Boyfriend's Back and Christian Smackdown are both fantastic. So is the rest of the album, but those two are my faves. Keep it up! -- AHL
Jay -- Totally
100% outstanding! Absolutely loved "Smak Dem
Christians Down". Almost fell off my chair while clapping and
laughing. In fact I liked it so much I just sent an email
(copied below) to the Yahoo e-group of my church (Broadway United
Methodist Church of Chicago). I'm sure it will be a hit, as
most of us are worn down and frazzled in our battle with the so-called
evangelical, right wing conservative faction of our denomination (why
do I always want to spell that "demonization"?).
Jay! Thanks for sending the new disc which has been getting heavy
rotation chez moi. "My Belinda" is really clever and so is
the freeway song. Also like the Herman's Hermits guitar lick
on "Arnie"...and of course I'm always glad to hear about Christians
getting "smakked" around :) -- Ron Romanovsky
Love it--and my
first thought is how much of your music makes me smile and
even laugh out loud, which is so welcome right now. You don't
shy away from serious issues, there's depth to what you do, but somehow
you make it a bit cracked and easier to deal with. I love the density
of your lyrics, and the individual way you deliver them.
Well now, I did
something I rarely do and that is order on line, but I was so
anxious to get your new CD I couldn't wait to call and order it
from CD Baby over the phone. I took advantage of the site and
gave a listen to excerpts from the album. Much to my surprise
and pleasure what do I hear but your rendition of one of the girl
classics from the 60's, "My Boyfriend's Back". I always knew
that would make a great gay song. Now I don't feel so weird
doing '60s Karaoke.
Jay, Playing on my Team KICKS ASS. It rocks. I love it, can't wait to get the cd. Erlin, NY
Hi Jay, my Jay
Spears CD/DVD bundle arrived in the mail yesterday and I'm just as
pleased as can be!! Nice touch with the autographed DVD holder --
So like I'm driving like a NASCAR nut to Palm Springs. I had resisted the temptation playing your new CD until I could listen to it in one sitting. So there I am in the middle of the desert, and a familiar Herman's Hermits guitar riff gets going. NTS, I'm laughing my ass off. And My Boyfriend's back just made me snort on the water I was chugging. Hey, let's not forget your tribute to DaVinci on the disc graphics...you ol' beefbo you. -- Larz, Mission Viejo
Hey Jay! Phil,
the boys and I just returned from a weekend in Chicago and were
thrilled to open our mailbox and find "Playin' On My Team"!
The kids were so excited that you had recorded a whole second album. We
burst out laughing at Cheapskate and then laughed with a bit of "we're
going to hell" fervor over the brilliant Smak Dem Christians
Down. Oh my lord, what great songwriting!
Glad to have some new Jay treats and we hope you are doing well! --
Brian, Phil, Max & Spencer; WI
Jay, my but the playin' on "Playin' On..." is superb. Krist on a crutch, but you can sting those strings! Thanks for sending the disc my way. It's in heaviest rotation mode in my car now, and I am constantly grabbing the Jewel Box to see who played what. I will soon crash. I am partial to 'Arnie' for its shuffle beatiness, but am just wild about My Belinda and am singing it to myself all of the time. Annie is the best bass singer I have ever heard. Not a dud tune on the thing and a cheerier cheekier Jay-y-er disc does not exist. Kudos to Yudos. More Jay on wax is a very very good thingie. -- Brad, L.A.
The five-star rating I've given is because: 1) your new album is FINALLY here, and 2) just based on the samples I heard, DUDE! You did the unthinkable! You TOPPED yourself! (Oh...should I rephrase that...? Hehheh...) But just based on what I heard between the title cut and "Smak Dem Krischuns (MY spelling) Down", my order will be in yer hot little...I mean hot BIG hands by this week's end! I can't wait to put together a folder of my faves from both albums on my new MP3 player...And I thought that "I Like Mike" was the best song you'd ever done...D-OH! Thanks again, Jay, and I'm still waiting to see you live and in the hunky 'beef-bo' flesh!--Donny N., Arlington, VA.
Got the new cd today - listened to it twice on the ride home from work (commute was hell - but the cd in the stereo made it ok!) - all I can say is "wow". You've outdid yourself. Several songs have become instant new favorites, in fact I just caught myself hummng "My Boyfriend's Back"! Didn't think the Angels original could be improved upon, but I think you've done it. -- Mike, VA
joy, an absolute joy from the opening chords of the opening
song it leaps out of the speakers. Fine songwriting, fine performances
all fired with an unignorable joie de vivre and lifeaffirming
exhuberance. Without hesitation I warmly recommend a recent discovery
from my 6 Music Evening Sequence show: JAY SPEARS. I like Jay's album "Boy Howdy" so much that if you buy it from his
website and don't agree, you can post it on to me at PO BOX 3185 London
SW18 3JG and I'll refund your money personally!"
A Los Angeles
singer/songwriter/string player whose tongue is most definitely in
cheek when it's not occupied with other pursuits, Jay Spears offers a
unique, thoroughly delightful, and more than occasionally wry take on
life. The voice itself will hardly earn him a Met audition, but his
brash presentation and go get 'em lyrics definitely push this disc to
the top of the chart.
I was one of the
judges in Out Song Of The Year and your work is in a completely
different league from everything else I heard.
From the beginning, you know this is different: irreverent, funny, in-your-face, and downright personal. Jay Spears hits many marks with his over-the-top lyrics and catchy-camp musical style. Dealing with everyday themes, some which are rarely discussed with any honesty, Spears shows us we can face the music so to speak and still maintain a sense of humor. Overall the entire CD is a rare listen, filled with good times and thought-provoking lyrics. Hmmm, can we really think and have fun at the same time??? You can when Jay Spears is guiding the train. -- LEN ROGERS, StoneWall Society
More listener reviews:
I just saw your "I Like Mike" video-what a refreshing, fun, and great song. A guy likes a guy and sings about it in a guy kind of way. It's a great fun song and Ilike it. -- David, ME
Not since, maybe, Randy Newman, have I heard a body of work so packed with unique songs. You certainly have a refreshing and knowing view on the world... and the talent to express it. And I'm amazed at the ease and fun with which you write about same-sex love. It's usually treated as such a heavy thing. My personal favorite by far is "Nothin'". It's wonderful. And "I Like Mike" almost killed me when I started laughing out loud during a press at the gym (I brought along my Walkman that day). Again, you've got an amazing mind. Thanks for letting us all inside it. -- MITCH GALLOB, Streeter Music
times, heartfelt at others, but always entertaining.
Hills are alive!
songwriters these days are actually witty?
balance between fun and melancoly. Melodic geniality.
Do not listen to this album if you insist on being in a bad mood!