Jeremy Spencer, the Fleetwood Mac alum, has found inspiration in working with new voices, old masters and his own muse — creating an album of intimate, handmade joys that moves confidently from blues to Americana to rootsy pop.
Bend in the Road, seeing worldwide release on August 28, 2012, recalls in many ways the Elmore James-focused contributions he made to Fleetwood Mac’s first pair of Peter Green-led recordings in the late 1960s — a vibe that carried over to Spencer’s 2006 comeback recording Precious Little, as well. Spencer plays slide throughout, and includes James tracks like “The Sun is Shining” and “Stranger Blues” — the last of which is given a tasty new Spanish tinge. (The opener, called “Homesick,” was actually written and recorded in the early 1950s by James’ cousin, too.)
But there’s much more than that going on here.
Of course, Spencer was also known, in the late 1960s, for his canny way of echoing early rockers, and he gives a few notable nods (the groove on “Earthquake,” the unkempt vocals on “Stranger Blues” and “Homework”) to the legacies of lost mid-century geniuses like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, too.
Bend in the Road, originally issued as a limited-edition double vinyl album for Record Store Day, also revives a few ideas that had lain dormant from his time in Fleetwood Mac, the brief solo career that followed, and during what would turn a three-decade retirement from the music business for Spencer — who left to follow a religious path.
He’d started on “Whispering Fields” in the run up to Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1967 debut, but set it aside. After a number of failed attempts at fashioning lyrics for the tune over the years, it’s presented here as an amiable, country-rocking instrumental. The searching, ruminative “Desired Haven” is a reworking of an idea that dates back to 1972, while “Refugees” started out as the title track from 1979’s Flee. “Aphrodite,” which recalls the inspirational lyricism of George Harrison, is originally from the late 1970s, as well. Meanwhile, “Earthquake” was written in 1981, after Spencer experienced a temblor in Greece.
At the same time, though, Bend in the Road doesn’t seem dated, never feels rote: That’s thanks in part of these flinty tandem moments with new collaborator Brett Lucas, who’s worked with Bettye LaVette in the past. His contributions are particularly notable on the series of Spencer instrumentals included here, as the second guitarist adds classically inspired flourishes, early rock punch, and a few saucy R&B asides. (The band is rounded out by drummer Todd Glass; bassist James Simonson; accordion player Duncan McMillan; a string section that included Molly Hughes, Mimi Morris and Stefan Koch; and background vocalist Rachel May, who offers an intriguing series of shadings — moving with sly ease from soaring heights to ghostly quietude.)
Credit Spencer, the roving gypsy heart of this project, as well. He finds inspiration everywhere — switching to keyboards on tracks like the majestically restrained “Merciful Sea” and James’ sizzling “Cry for My Baby,” while uncovering inspirational wellsprings that reside far beyond the iconic Delta cottonfields and shotgun shacks of traditional acoustic blues: There are devotional nods to his time away from music (“I Walked a Mile With Sorrow,” “Come to Me”), and a trio of tunes based upon poetry — “I Walked a Mile” (Robert Browning), “Secret Sorrow” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and the title track (an obscure writer named Praveen).
In the end, this gives Bend in the River the feel of a career valedictory. It’s gloriously hard to pin down — something personified in standout tracks like “Homework,” which finds Spencer howling like old rock and stinging like Otis Rush, all over a loose groove that would have been right at home on an Eric Clapton solo recording from the early 1970s.
It’s that kind of record. The very good kind.
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