Spirituals: The Best Of Spain

I'm not sure where I've been for the last eight years regarding the group Spain, but until now I plead abject ignorance. For three intensely quiet, calm-on-the-surface but boiling underneath albums for Restless Records between 1995-2001, L.A.'s Spain was the band outlet of bassist/singer-songwriter Josh Haden, son of jazz bass great Charlie Haden.

When I threw the disc on last night I knew nothing but the Haden pedigree, and was quite surprised to find, after the first two rather nondescript tunes, lurking, furtive beauty and mystery in the ruminative slow-burn alt-rock tradition of Cowboy Junkies, Mazzy Star, Luna, American Music Club, Tindersticks, the Church, with a tablespoon of jazzy confessionalist Michael Franks thrown in for good measure - quite extraordinary.

Haden's voice, sometimes rising barely above a whisper, has the chunky heft of Lenny Kravitz, the compressed exuberance of Adam Duritz ("Spiritual"), and a numinous hint of special knowledge glimpsed just around the corner like Luna's Dean Wareham ("Untitled #1").

But Haden isn't the whole story: virtually every song has a memorable, tangy, arpeggio-based electric guitar figure, simple but precise and perfect, giving internal motion and momentum to songs otherwise dominated by the Ent-like languor of Haden's vocals.

Alongside already mentioned favorites are "Easy Lover" ("made love now we have to pay"), "Nobody Has to Know" (with lovely acoustic guitar and cocktail paino backing), "Waiting For You to Come" (particularly fine guitar alternating between chord-based fills and unison-melody vocal accompaniment), and "She Haunts My Dreams" (the most traditional rock sound, like a great medium-tempo Tom Petty song).

Three bonus tracks recorded live on the air at KCRW - including the only two covers, Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" and Kurt Weill's "September Song" - round out the exceptional 16-song package. Josh Haden has a solo album due out in early 2004.

Eric Olsen