An elegant blend of gorgeous pop and cleverly orchestrated guitar-rock, The Specs' newly-released, self-titled album has already foxed many listeners in town. In some spots, the local quartet resemble a gang of pastoral alchemists, conversant with the sounds of Brian Eno, U2, Elliot Smith, and Echo & the Bunnymen. In other moments, they bounce off the bombast of the loudest songs Queen, Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, and Mission of Burma ever attempted.
The core three Specs guys have been fine-tuning this mix of styles for quite a while. Shawn Krauss, the band's lanky drummer, can usually be spotted slingin' suds and recommending high-gravity beers at the Tin Roof (a gig he landed after several years of working at the Village Tavern). Guitarist and main songwriter Steve Tirozzi spends most of his time giving private guitar lessons and teaching music classes at an elementary school in Mt. Pleasant. Mop-topped lead singer Eric Galloway switches between guitar and keys while handling lead vocals for the band. He waits tables on the side.
In the studio sessions, the band worked mostly with acclaimed studio producer and guitarist Les Hall (of Trey Anastasio's touring band), laying down most of the basic tracks and overdubs at Tree Studios and producer Rick Beato's facility (both in Atlanta). The band wrote and arranged most music for the album over two years ago, making only a few adjustments during the studio sessions.
"The initial idea for a song usually comes from me at home — one little melody or chord progression — but everyone collaborates on everything," says Tirozzi. "Everybody plays a huge role in finishing the songs."
"All of the songs are totally different," he adds. "We like to say it's a concept album, but it wasn't written intentionally to be a concept album. We wrote it when we were drinking hard late at night. 'I Can't Sleep' sums up the theme of most of the album."
The Specs is a winding and elusive collection with two distinct personalities: aggravation and dreaminess. Half of the songs are bright and shiny, while the rest seem almost dark and creepy. At their most agitated — as with opening track "Eleanor Best" and "Happiness" — the band thumps effortlessly from a foundation of distorted guitars, simulated strings, massive drums, and Galloway's howling vocals. At their most delicate and slow-moving, as with the hazy "Nothing's Real," it's a harrowing symphony of echo-laden piano, synth, and plenty of sonic space.
The standout track "Killing a Bird," a dynamic anthem that bridges the two personalities, is based on a painful childhood memory where Tirozzi witnessed a friend literally killing a bird — a memory that triggered deeper notions and emotions about the heaviest of life experiences.
"I remember a show we did at the Map Room about two years ago, right when we started playing the new stuff on this album," says Krauss. "There definitely were some people who were kind of like, 'Hey, we like this ... but it's not you guys.' We went, 'Well, we are what we are. This is us.' With every step we've taken, we've always challenged ourselves to do something new."
Like any favorite classic rock band, the Specs seem determined to move toward new musical ground. "I like how Pink Floyd did it," says Tirozzi. "They went from that early Syd Barrett era, where they sounded kind of like the Who, and then made their way up to Dark Side of the Moon, where you couldn't even tell it was the same band."
The Specs first started playing together in Columbia before relocating to Boston in the mid 2000s. Krauss, Tirozzi, and Galloway played with rotation of bassists before moving back to S.C. and settling into Charleston's indie-rock scene in 2004. Scott Padgett came onboard as the new bassist and backup singer. By the end of 2005, local musician and artist Kevin Hanley signed on as bassist. Tripp Wrenn, a friend and bandmate from their early days in Columbia, recently replaced Hanley on low-end duty.
"We played that kind of indie-rock for four or five years — the really rockin', high-energy kind of thing," remembers Krauss. "We all got depressed and it was kind of a dark time [around 2006], around when we put the songs together for this album."
Nick Brewer performed as the Specs' keyboardist through most of 2006, adding musical ideas to many of the songs that ended up on the latest collection. Unfortunately, according to Krauss, he and the band underwent an abrupt, not-so-amicable split just before the studio sessions.
"He was a really good musician, but things did not work out," says Krauss.
Tirozzi sounds a little less bothered by the disconnection. "I think most of us are still friends with Nick," he says, "Plus, I think it turned out to be a good thing for the band. Eric now plays all the keyboard parts. He's not a virtuoso like Nick, but he's totally capable of playing all the parts."
A keyboard-playing, stand-up frontman? Both Krauss and Tirozzi claim they've not yet heard any comparisons to The Killers. Inspired more by of the musical experiments by the likes of the Hold Steady, Spoon, and R.E.M., the band will likely continue to detour and meander away from the norm.