There’s a charm to side-projects, but that doesn’t mean they’re generally more than just something for musicians to do before their main attraction releases something new. That’s why it’s so impressive when one turns out really well. Divine Fits is one such case.
Made up of Spoon singer-songwriter Britt Daniel, Dan Boeckner (from Wolf Parade and the Handsome Furs, among other bands) and New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown, Divine Fits serves mostly as a trade-off between Daniel and Boeckner. Both sing and write lyrics. They even trade off on guitar and bass. Meanwhile, Brown sits behind his kit and winds up as important a piece of the puzzle as either of the frontmen.
“A Thing Called Divine Fits,” the group’s first album, is odd because, conceptually, the best way for the group to have exceeded expectations would be for Daniel to take the lead all the time. Spoon is a superior band to both Wolf Parade and the Handsome Furs, and nothing in his discography indicates Boeckner could hold a candle to Daniel. But here, Boeckner takes lead-vocal duties on more than half of the album’s eleven tracks and he sells them all. Perhaps Daniel is his muse, or maybe it’s just a basic human reaction to give the best performance possible when Spoon’s lead singer says, “Why don’t you sing this one?”
“My Love is Real,” a Boeckner song, opens the album. It’s a subtle piece of synth-rock that in less than three minutes presents a band way better than you’re expecting. This song is followed by “Flaggin’ a Ride,” a Daniel song that shows his most notable qualities in a way few Spoon songs have.
While many collaborations seem lazy, Divine Fits won’t settle for that. In fact, Daniel and Boeckner seem to be using the lack of obligations forming a new band presents to go in weirder and different directions. “What Gets You Alone” goes back and forth between a basic guitar-bass-drum rock sound and a sparse acoustic-backed chorus, before bringing strings into the mix.
The fifth song on “A Thing Called Divine Fits,” “The Salton Sea” is the most artsy the band gets. It has a repeating synth-line that becomes more distorted as the song continues, and a melody that barely sticks out. With a four-minute running time, the song can become a bit grating and it’s best to think of it as an interlude.
For as odd as this album is, it seems even stranger to think that it would peak with three Boeckner songs and Daniel doing a Nick Cave cover, but it does. With the three Boeckner songs, “Baby Get Worse,” “Civilian Stripes” and “For Your Heart,” it’s not so much the tracks themselves as it is the way they flow together. Each segues into the next with precision, as the post-disco “Baby Get Worse” fades out into the country-rock “Civilian Stripes,” which in turn makes way for the gothic drone of “For Your Heart.”
The Nick Cave cover, “Shivers,” is the best song on the album, as well as one of the best songs Cave’s name has ever been attached to. Originally released as a single by Boys Next Door (which eventually became The Birthday Party), “Shivers” is a remarkably sincere song about depression. At the same time, the opening line,
“I’ve been contemplating suicide/But it really doesn’t suit my style,” seems ridiculous when sung by Cave, whose style from youth to old-age has always been goth-angst. When the line is sung by Daniel, however, it seems more reasonable, and much sadder. After all, suicidal contemplation would never suit Daniel’s style, which has always been made up of a little sadness offset by confidence. One of my favorite Spoon songs, “Finer Feelings,” shows this perfectly.
Other than “Shivers,” “A Thing Called Divine Fits” is a consistent rock album. But if that proves anything, it’s that a little inconsistency is a good thing. With this one burst of depression in between the rock ‘n’ roll, “A Thing Called Divine Fits” ceases to be just a decent album and becomes a very good album I can see myself giving an occasional spin every now and then, even a few years from now. And, in this sad year for music, an album you can see yourself playing several years down the road is not a common thing.
Key Tracks: “Shivers,” “Baby Get Worse,” “Flaggin’ a Ride” and “Civilian Stripes.”