Album Of The Week: Spiritual Cramp Spiritual Cramp

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Album Of The Week: Spiritual Cramp Spiritual Cramp


There’s a guy in Spiritual Cramp who just plays tambourine, and his presence is weirdly crucial. That’s not because there’s so much tambourine in Spiritual Cramp’s music; most of the time, you can’t hear it at all. It’s not because tambourine player Jose Luna is the secret musical genius behind the band, either; singer Michael Bingham and bassist Mike Fenton write all the songs. (The division of labor between a Michael and a Mike must get confusing.) Luna doesn’t even tour regularly with Spiritual Cramp; he mostly just plays local shows and festivals. But when you see Spiritual Cramp operating at full capacity, with all six guys throwing themselves around the stage, you are forced to reckon with an undeniable force.

They look cool as hell. That’s important, too. In person, Spiritual Cramp are a blur of immaculately tailored motion — boots and gold chains and Fred Perrys flying in every direction. They always look like the slickest guys in the room, and they put serious effort into that. On first pass, their music mostly sounds cool, too: revved-up garage-rock guitars, desolate dub basslines, cranked-up and anthemic post-punk choruses roared with abandon. The band’s presentation almost works as a DIY punk-scene spin on the early-’00s magazine-hype buzz bands. If they’d come along 20 years earlier, Spiritual Cramp would’ve been on at least two NME covers by the time they released their debut album.

When you dig deeper, though, you realize that almost every Spiritual Cramp song is about being depressed and fucked up and self-destructive and wrong. These guys came from pre-tech-boom San Francisco, and they don’t typically like to talk about it, but they’ve seen some shit. The explosive anger on their songs is directed both inward and outward — sometimes both at once — and it adds another layer to their story. Spiritual Cramp look like the coolest gang you ever met; they could be in The Warriors. But when you’re barely keeping your shit together, you sometimes need to put on your best clothes and surround yourself with your best friends. The same things that read as attention-grabbing tactics are sometimes also coping mechanisms.

Spiritual Cramp’s new self-titled album is their first full-length, which feels wrong. The band has already been around for years, and its members have been around for longer than that. Michael Bingham and Mike Fenton were members of Creative Adult, a dreamy-fuzzy post-hardcore band who released two albums on Run For Cover in the ’10s. Bingham also recently spent time with the excellent Ceremony side project Spice, while other Spiritual Cramp members come from more straight-up Bay Area hardcore bands like Primal Rite, Scalped, and Fentanyl.

Spiritual Cramp named themselves after a song that goth-punk greats Christian Death released in 1982, and you can hear some of that hectic, claustrophobic influence on their music. But the name is less a specific Christian Death reference, more a psychological viewpoint. In 2018, Michael Bingham told Thrasher about the feeling that the name describes: “Just feeling tripped out and fucked up all the time. Just every day, man. Every day is a spiritual cramp. Life is a spiritual cramp.” The first Spiritual Cramp EP came out in 2017, and there have been a lot more since — so many that they released the compilation LP Television in 2018. (This is one of those situations where a band’s debut album is only their debut album on a technicality.)

Onstage, Spiritual Cramp carry themselves as a hardcore band, and they mostly play with hardcore bands, even though they don’t play hardcore. When the singles from Spiritual Cramp started arriving, I was a little worried that the band had gotten too polished, that they were losing their unique identity by chasing a form of crossover popularity that doesn’t really exist anymore. The band recorded Spiritual Cramp with regular collaborator Grace Coleman, but the lines feel a little cleaner, the hooks a little more direct. On past records, Spiritual Cramp could be loose and playful, risking their own momentum by playing around with sudden shifts into reggae or Dead Milkmen-style joke-punk. Some of the songs on Spiritual Cramp really could play in the background of a candy commercial, and that feels like a calculated decision. It doesn’t feel like the wrong decision, though.

On a surface level, Spiritual Cramp is a catchy, fun record. You can hear tons of influences dancing through the music — bits and pieces of punk, hardcore, power pop, garage rock, reggae, oi. But you don’t have to be a nerd about any of that shit to enjoy the music. It’s music that you can play on a car stereo late at night, or on a bright and sunny day, and feel bulletproof. It’s music that you can play around friends who don’t pay that much attention to new music, and they won’t get all annoyed that you’re trying to force some brainy new indie band on them. The riffs bang. The hooks crank. It’s less than half an hour of fist-pumping fuck-you-up fun rock ‘n’ roll, and we don’t get a ton of records like that these days. (If you’re into bands like White Reaper or the Orwells, then you should not hesitate to fuck with Spiritual Cramp.)

Over the course of the album, Spiritual Cramp mess around with a few different styles. Their “Blowback” intro is mechanized, echo-drenched reggae. “Can I Borrow Your Lighter?” is juiced-up bubble-punk with tons of drum-machine effects and hyper-compressed hey chants. “City On Fire” is spiky new wave. “Herberts On Holiday” sounds like Interpol if Interpol could beat you up. But Spiritual Cramp is a more cohesive attack than anything Spiritual Cramp have attempted up until now. Most of the time, this is a heedless, reckless rock ‘n’ roll band — one that struts and mugs and peacocks with the best of them. That recklessness extends to the lyrics, too.

Within its first minute or so, Spiritual Cramp establishes this band as mean, desperate fuckers, constantly scrambling to get ahead in a dangerous world. There’s not a ton of poetry in their lyrics, but those words tell you everything you need to know about them: “Another riot in the streets! Another riot in the city! Another town that’s burning down because the cops are being shitty!” That’s not the only song about rioting, either. On “City On Fire,” Spiritual Cramp sing about getting sick of all the bullshit and burning an entire city down. On “Clashing At The Party,” they’re making uninvited visits to celebrations just to rifle through medicine cabinets, raid closets, and grab any personal electronic devices that might be sitting around. On “Catch A Hot One,” they’re having long nights, getting into fights, and fucking around with substances that will shorten their lives: “Cocaine and Fentanyl! The cigarettes, it’s all, it’s all! Enough to make you wanna die!”

On some of those songs, the members of Spiritual Cramp sound like they’re getting over their past traumas and transgressions by singing about them. Elsewhere, they sound relatively settled. “Herberts On Holiday” is Michael Bingham’s song about his wife and about the peace that he never thought he’d find. On the headbanging spit-snort “Slick Rick,” Bingham sings about chasing material success in ways that don’t sound entirely sarcastic: “Four-story house and a king-sized bed! I want a purebreed dog, I wanna live in debt!” There’s nothing mannered or overthought in this music. You never sense the gears at work, the genre-combination calculations. Instead, this is ferocious, instinctive rock ‘n’ roll. There’s tons of angst and anger and restlessness on Spiritual Cramp, but it all comes out sounding like euphoria. It’s not music to think about. It’s music to feel. Grab a tambourine.

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