Tommy Burton: Rusty Spell

Tommy Burton's Album Guide

Making a gillion albums in his home studio, Rusty Spell is an example of prolific recording. He is the true defintion of lo-fi indie rock. All the while, you are never sure if he really means what he saying. It's as if his "career" is a big joke and he's not letting anyone in on it. Still, his recordings can be quite brilliant when they want to be. Other times, they are exercises in excess.

Mailbox (Love and Letters, 1995)

Rusty's first solo recording was like he was making the "typical eponymous debut that is to be expected from an artist that breaks from another group." Spell broke from the adlib garage band 'nikcuS to, more or less, prove that he could do a project of this nature. The whole album is a personal look at his life. He introduces us to Rusty Spell, the artist, in the opening folksy "Box 6779." "Berky" is a pleasant enough snapshot of Rusty's early life in junior high school. He then breaks from the folky pop domain he established with the first two songs to cut into an instrumental steel drum track using his trusty synth. The song ("Steele Life") isn't bad, but it's an extreme departure. We then venture back into Rusty's world with "She" and "Blue" before the album takes another left turn with a cover of the REM classic "It's The End Of The World As We Know It." The cover is cleverly titled as "Windows 95 Rejection," and it's a straight swing version of the tune! The album gets even more hazy with the funny "Twinkle," which is a rap version of the children's song, complete with a Mr. Rogers parody. While the song itself is pretty funny, it sounds more like a 'nickuS outtake than a true Rusty Spell original. But he is a man of many faces. The album gets back on track with the catchy pop number "No Way Of Knowing," which may be the best song on the whole record. "Little Girl" is a quick number sung a la Bobby McFerrin with Spell providing all the backing with his own voice. "Number 14" is a sound collage of things Rusty likes and him reading one of his own stories. Rusty is all over the musical map with his first solo effort. This might be fitting as the rest of his albums are very similar. Is he mad with ego or is he searching for his own bit of the spotlight? This recording tries to answer that and sometimes fails on those very grounds.

Covers By Casio (Love and Letters, 1996)

The back cover of the album states, "Rusty Spell ruins your favorite songs with a recording he made in two hours on his Casiotone MT-100 keyboard." This really sums it up. The album is not to be taken seriously and is really a curio among the Spell catalogue..

Experiments and Outtakes (Love and Letters, 1998)

Rusty was fully involved with other project, The Mnemonic Devices (see other review), by this time. The original idea for that band was to have various vocalists singing his material. Many of the vocalists never got around to doing their parts, so Rusty eventually did them himself and released it as I Don't Remember. Those that did get around to recording their vocals are featured here among a mixture of answering machine messages and simple screwing around. The I Don't Remember songs here are: "Perfection," "I Like You Too" (a true outtake of the vocal session with Rusty and Debi), "Crazy" (featuring a lead vocal by yours truly), and "Anyway" (with yours truly's wife singing the lead). The version of "Anyway" featured here may be the only one that actually outshines the one released on the album. "Alpha," the opening track, features a dialogue by the computer program Dr. Sbaitso. The true title of it should be "Fun With Computers That Can't Pronounce Certain Words." "Afrikain" was actually composed by 'nickuS band member Kevin Young, but this version features an added drum track done by Spell. "This Time" is here twice as both an instrumental and a longer vocal version that hints at things to come from Spell's solo career. Another track like this may be "Shady Lane," a cover of the Pavement song. Spell provides all the backing using only his voice, very similar to "Little Girl" from Mailbox. Another oddity in this style is a cover of the Magnetic Fields' "Lovers From The Moon." "Staying" is a true Mnemonic Devices outtake. It's a country flavored piece that moves along quite well and features a goofy harmonica solo. The answering machine messages are very funny with one featuring the famous Dr. Katz. There is yet another 'nikcuS soundalike in Rusty's harmonica workout "Jimi Harmonica," a distorted solo that's supposed to imitate Hendrix's famous style. The version of "Rock-a-Bye Moon" featured here may compare to the final version released on Midi Skirt. With the mish mash of material, this makes for a complete listening experience, unlike previous Spell albums.

Christmas Again (Love and Letters, 1998)

Spell takes on the holidays as only he can. The result is a hodgepodge of anything he can get his hands on to create some kind of sound. The best material here is the ones that seem directly aimed at kids. "Senor Santa Claus" is a Mexican's letter to the man in red. "No, Virginia" explains how belief in Santa screwed the narrator up after he discovered that he wasn't indeed real. An instrumental rendering os "Silent Night" is enhanced by the famous Linus speech at the end of the Peanuts' Christmas special, which makes it endearing. "Rudolph vs The Man" is white rap at its worst. The complete effect is almost haphazard, but one couldn't expect less from Spell as a solo artist at this point.

indie rock credibility (Love and Letters, 1999)

Recorded in one night, this may (rather surprisingly) be Spell's most cohesive effort. The record is frighteningly brilliant, yet never commercial. It's so cathartic that it seems as though he is releasing demons from hell and therefore will certainly not appeal to all tastes, but its brutal honesty will garner respect at the very least. This is Spell's long dark night of the soul. The album is raw and in your face from the beginning of "The Matter," a loose song with Spell setting the tone of out of tune guitars and questioning lyric. Many of the "songs" are extreme exercises in sound, but there are some that creep out like the rough indie folk of "Size 28 Jeans." The vocals are drenched in cheap reverb only adding to the lo-fi quality of the project. "Properly Handled" is a swirl of vocals and cheap Casio-rock. "Rock and Raoul" is a backwards track with a buried lead vocal. As a matter of fact, almost all the lead vocals are buried in the mix making the lyrics completely missed. It's as though Rusty's voice is just another instrument adding to the cacophony on many of the tracks. "Basement Punk" actually makes a good argument that Rusty can do punk music. It's still loose, yet it carries through as a composition. "Valentine's Day" defines the term "loose" with a free form vocal over a jagging guitar and random drum track. "Sieze Her Salad" is like a round of repetitive lines spoken over a distorted guitar. "This War" is almost catchy with something actually resembling a melody. It also features an organ rambling away in the foreground. The jokes are still here with the tribute to Antonio Banderas ("The Sexiest Mexican"), but unlike previous Spell albums, one isn't sure if the jokes are supposed to be funny. "Dead Father" is touching and might be the closest thing on the album to sounding like a complete song. "Track 4" could be seen as both a scathing comment on the music business (or music buying public) or just another joke. "Hyperboles" closes the album in a true indie-rock style. It rivals 'Dead Father" as most fully realized song on the album and "This War" as catchiest. It also leaves the album on a high note. Spell is a minimalist in every sense, especially when compared to the thickness of The Mnemonic Devices. If Spell was ever a soul in torment, this album is proof. This is truly the beginning of Spell's solo career...maybe. For fans of his other band, The Mnemonic Devices, he firmly establishes the difference between them and his solo self.

Alterna-Chick (Love and Letters, 2000)

Continuing the solo sound he established with indie rock credibility, this a true followup, something Spell has never properly done. The opener "Gen XY Post-Slack Realization" is a mixture of sampled beats and sound effects. At times, it sounds like Spell recorded cars driving by his house and running water, but you can really be sure. Overall, there is a feeling of urgency to the track. It's back to the loose indie-rock with the rollicking senselessness of "BMX Bandits." "The World Accordian To Spell" is him playing chords with the said instrument over a vocal sounding like a lazer show at the planetarium. "XXY Chromosomes" is stew of burping, barking, and laughing played over and over. The most disturbing track by far is "Give Me My Money," which is taken from an actual argument recorded outside of Spell's apartment window. The disturbing part, though, is the peaceful music that guides the track. "Liza" is a tribute to the album's inspiration, Rusty's alterna-chick girlfriend. Just listen to this track alone and you can get a sense of the difference between this and the previous Spell album. It sounds similar, but it's a much happier affair. "The Tape Recorder" aimlessly wanders along sounding like somebody is having too much fun with noises. It's as though the lead "vocals" are the noises themselves on this otherwise instrumental track. Is that a lawnmower or an electric shaver? It also sounds like someone is shuffling through a desk drawer. "The Sound Of Emotion" features a beautiful lyric sung by a slowed down vocal. And anybody with half a heart can be moved to tears by Liza's answering machine message at the close of "Yellow Towell." While this and the previous album are certainly for those that dare enter, they are both stark and soul bearing.

Strums The Mnemonic Devices (Love and Letters, 2000)

As if his ego wasn't large enough, Spell records a tribute album to himself! On the whole, this isn't a bad collection as each song is well thought out and excecuted. Then again, there are more completed arrangements of these songs available on Mnemonic Devices albums (see other review) and Spell alone on the acoustic guitar doesn't really add to them. If anything, it proves how good he can really be as a songwriter. A confusing album by all accounts, this sounds like demo versions recorded after the fact.

This Album Belongs To... (Love and Letters, 2000)

Quickly following the rather low-key release of Strums, Rusty has created a children's album. A true children's album. The songs are all about names, sounds, and boogers. Surprisingly, fans of Spell's work will enjoy this release as well. The settings are typical Spell fare. The most effective track may be the sing-along "What's Your Name?," which is as the title implies. "The Boy Who Couldn't Fall Asleep" may do what the title character cannot do. As expected, "Boogers" is the hit here. It's a happy sing along that small kids will never tire of. This may be to the chagrin of many parents who allow their children to experience Rusty's fun.

Copyright (c) Sep 2000 by Love and Letters Music