With Spells, The Comas attempt a difficult follow-up. In 2004, the band hit the big time with their third release, Conductor, but that was largely because Conductor was singer-guitarist Andy Herod’s break-up album, penned after his very public split with Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Dawson’s Creek). The Chapel Hill-by-way-of-New York group left their old town’s Yep Roc Records for their new town’s Vagrant, and hired producer Bill Racine (The Flaming Lips, Rogue Wave). Cooped up in the Catskill Mountains, The Comas created Spells, a catchy and even diverse album, but couldn’t find the substance needed for a new, beating heart.
Vagrant Records rose to fame on the back of the emo wave, featuring the likes of Saves The Day and genre-giants Dashboard Confessional. Of late, however, the label has been moving more into alternative music, with acts as Paul Westerberg, Eels, The Futureheads, and The Hold Steady. Spells luckily does not veer into the whiney emo field, but it does veer towards mainstream-accessible indie-pop/rock, though from a few different angles.
With record-openers “Red Microphones” (also the first single) and “Hannah T.”, The Comas take an indie-Beatles, bopping garage-rock approach that’s a little too simple, and drags in the slower sections. Like other alt-acts of today inspired by sixties pop (such as The Apples in Stereo or The Broken West), they also take some variations on the sound, later on in Spells. The fuzzily atmospherics of the psychedelic-Beatles-ish “Thistledown” has great melody, but it leans a little too heavy on that button. It is instead the driving, poppy, alt-Beach Boys “New Wolf” that really shines through, with an absolutely great driving-rock chorus.
The Comas also look to a slower, more epic, even orchestral tone, but it’s a little too slow and epic on “Now I’m A Spider”, not enough on “Stoneded”, and just right on “Light The Pad”, whose guitar distortions and pure emotionality make it truly special. Then there’s the low-key sadness of the pretty-but-too-long “After The Afterglow”, which is bettered by the strong drumbeats and nice guitar solo of the driving-and-building “Sarah T.” Both styles, big and small, are stronger than the lightweight seductive-indie-rock of “Come My Sunshine”.
Like the emo-punk-indie-rock Vagrant Records or the WB-to-Oscars Michelle Williams, on Spells, The Comas keep one foot in the mainstream while shifting the other one around in the alternative. The record is catchy without being hook-laden bubblegum pop/punk, and varied without going that deep into any specific direction. Solid, but not spectacular, there’s enough in Spells to make you like virtually every song, but only enough to make you love a few.