BRITISH SINGER-GUITARIST Jason Pierce didn't so much start Spiritualized as alchemize it out of its predecessor, the legendary psychedelic-gospel-motorik- fusion band Spacemen 3. The only constant member of the group (nearly 20 others have come and gone during its decade-plus existence), Pierce has honed Spiritualized's sound into a hazy-yet-sharp amalgam of his many musical obsessions. Their first album, 1992's Lazer Guided Melodies, was truly modern psychedelia, not merely electric but electronic, possessing a wide-screen dynamism that outstripped the Pixies and Nirvana and portending an almost bipolar approach to their alternately calm and frenzied material.
Eleven years and four albums later, Pierce is explaining the recent streamlining of his approach. "I had met up with Dr. John in the studio," he says. "He told me, 'People do get your shit, but you should really say it more directly.' It was good to hear that. It was coming more from the world of jazz, where we listen and respond to what we were hearing and performing."
It didn't necessarily take a New Orleans piano legend to make Pierce simplify his sound. But knowing his work was becoming impressive but too much, he reverses tack on the new Amazing Grace (Sanctuary). Spiritualized's fifth studio release, and their shortest, Amazing Grace reflects the compact punch given to older songs on the band's last American tour in early 2002. It balances Pierce's familiar musical and lyrical obsessions (sex, drugs, the Deity) with a noticeably rougher spark, steering away from gargantuan delivery to immediacy. This is in marked contrast to the bulk of Spiritualized's '90s output, when Pierce and his constantly rotating lineup worked on ever more grandiose visions via studio hibernations, culminating in 2001's Let It Come Down, an album of huge multipart arrangements and wedding-cake perfection, much like the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin and Mercury Rev's All Is Dream.
On Amazing Grace, the sheer explosiveness hinted at on earlier songs like "Electricity" and "The Twelve Steps" finally completely lets loose with songs like "She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)" and "Cheapster" instead of disappearing into cavernous mixes. Pierce's trademark attention to detail remains intact, as "Oh Baby," with its lovely swells of chimes and keyboards at the end, and the slow, string-touched flow of "Rated X" demonstrate. But a song like "Lord Let It Rain on Me"the latest in a series of songs in which Spiritualized get, well, spiritualis crisper than nearly everything on Let It Come Down. Meanwhile, the reflective "The Ballad of Richie Lee"written about Pierce's friend, the lead singer of Acetone who took his own life two years agospikes the strings and backing vocals with Pierce's slashing guitar lines.
AMAZING GRACE doesn't just sound different. While making it, Pierce steered clear of his notorious months-long recording engagements. "I introduced the songs on the day they were recorded," he says. "Rock is mostly a rehearsed thing, but I wanted to really bring more of the spontaneity of free jazz into it, to hear the guitarists playing to the vocals, the drummer playing to the guitarist, to give the sense of the first time a song came together. We did no more than eight takes on any particular song, and often we picked the fourth or fifth take, because you don't always recognize when you've got it."
Pierce's references to free jazz aren't accidental. Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space (1997) reflected a burgeoning if fairly controlled interest in the style, along with his other lodestones (the disc found Pierce writing his sorrows across a huge canvas, up to and including gospel choirs). But last year, Pierce found himself performing with many notable free-jazz musicians, including saxophonist Evan Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp, on Amassed, the respected U.K. art-techno duo Spring Heel Jack's volume in the Blue Series, and the Shipp-organized group of jazz-electronic-rock hybrid recordings on indie-jazz label Thirsty Ear.
Pierce is a friend and one-time tour-mate of Spring Heel Jack, but his appearance on the disc still came as something of a surprise to him. "My gut reaction when I was invited by them to participate was, 'Wow, I know nothing about it.' But I think they appreciated the way I play guitarno formal training, just expression. What I love about '60s garage music is that it's all attitude, making the noise you want to make. There's a similar spirit in free jazz as well, in how it's heardcapturing the physicality of the performance, the squeak of fingers on brass or the sound of fingers on guitars. If you've got nothing to say, you can carry it with production. For Amazing Grace, we wanted to stop using the studio as an instrument, to be as naked as we could."
The title of the new album also foregrounds Pierce's long-professed interest in gospelsomething of a conundrum, since Pierce himself is a stated atheist who prefers what he calls "good science" to religion. "I don't have time for whimsy and fantasy, because there's enough energy you can generate on your own," he says. "But I adore gospel, that surge, that excitement. [The word] 'Jesus' is sung with so much passion, honesty, and truth. That's importantjust because you wear black leather and comb your fringe and have a cigarette, that's not truth."
Spiritualized play the Showbox with Soledad Brothers at 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 8. $17.50 adv./$20.