CD Review: Walter Spencer’s Southern California Fantasia
Southern California songwriter and roots musician Walter Spencer has carved a name for himself on the streets of Los Angeles with his dementedly witty songs and frenetically eclectic performances. His songs may seem strange to squares, like his long-form ode to Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, his song “Weed” about, well weed (and which was featured on the show Weeds!), or his call-to-arms for the Occupy movement, but they make perfect sense in the DIY clash of punk music, hippy values, and raunchy folk rock that is the hallmark of Southern California. Getting his start in LA punk bands, Spencer’s love of American old-time music blossomed during his time as the raging bassist for the notorious Water Tower Bucket Boys. Touring the US and Europe, the Bucket Boys were known for their intense shows that blended Appalachian square dance tunes with bluegrass covers of punk icons like Rancid. After leaving the Bucket Boys, Spencer struck out on his own as a songwriter, aided by his friends, some of the best roots musicians on the West Coast. His albums since then, A Sunday Night Roast in 2010 and Red Romance in 2012 have been rollicking roots music celebrations, anchored by Spencer’s gravelly voice, folked-up lyrics, and kickass stringband picking.
In 2013, Walter Spencer has been exploring his songwriting even more, honing his craft at home and delivering his folk anthems to the masses. His new album, Love is the Balm, is the result of this period of work, and it’s his most self-assured release to date. Opening with the title track, a rollicking, cracked country song inspired by the life of Johnny Cash, the album runs across a wide range of ideas, both musically and philosophically. “This Precious Life” is a lovely ode to fatherhood and parenting, inspired by Spencer’s study of Buddhist meditation, while “Delrium Tremens” is a song about the difficulties of quitting life’s addictions, whether cigarettes, drink, or even a bad relationship. “Beyond the Fence” is about an inspiring stay at the hippie art commune Topanga Canyon outside LA, the eerie banjo song “Trail of Corpses” was inspired by a chilling article on a Sudanese massacre, and the stringband inflected song “Backstepper’s Blues” tells the story of a great old-time fiddler whose life rode off the rails. Spencer’s music is as wildly eclectic as he is himself, prone to fascinating flights of fancy and crazy diversions, but tied together by a great heart.
Walter Spencer’s just about what Woody Guthrie would have sounded like if he came of age in the 21st century, as equally hopped up on underground punk shows as urban square dances, howling out songs for the common man on the streets of Los Angeles.
Walter Spencer: Beyond the Fence
Walter Spencer: Backstepper’s Blues
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to presenting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.