Listen to this track by new wave suburbanites and registered Canadian anglophiles Spoons. It’s their 1982 hit single “Smiling In Winter” as taken from their album Arias & Symphonies, the band’s second. The song outlines the impression of a season that their country, and mine (the same one, as it happens) is known, delivered in a style that demonstrates their love of British pop music, specifically new wave, post punk, and New Romantic.
Spoons were formed in 1979 out of high school. They’d put out an indie single in 1980, and later a debut album in Stick Figure Neighbourhood the following year with what would be their classic line-up: Gordon Deppe (lead vocal, guitar), Sandy Horne (vocals, bass), Rob Preuss (keyboards), and Derrick Ross (drums). They would go on to tour with some of the biggest acts of the era in Culture Club, The Police, and Simple Minds.
This song was one of three singles off of what would be their breakthrough on mainstream radio and help to define the era in early ’80s Southern Ontario, especially in the suburbs. The other two would be the title track, “Arias & Symphonies”, and “Nova Heart”. And these were all from a local band from Burlington, Ontario – actually one town over from where I grew up in Oakville – rather than from Sheffield, Liverpool, London, or other British musical mecca of early-’80s post punk and synth-based pop.
But, Spoons were no copycat band. They understood that the core of that new wave sound is about playing shadows against light on all kinds of levels. They knew that taking rock instruments and contrasting it against synths was really just the base ingredient of that dynamic. But, what of this song, and the contrasting forces working within it?
“Smiling in Winter” carried on the band’s lyrical point of view as suburbanites; a song of isolation and alienation. In it, they developed the continuing themes of the intrinsic artificiality of life in the suburbs, watching the world “unaffected”. In this tune, the wintry landscape isn’t just about the weather. It’s about how disconnected we’ve become to our world – a Twentieth Century luxury indeed. And now a Twenty-First Century one, too.
My favourite texture here is Sandy Horne’s bass; a tremulous and menacing countermelody against the building synth lines. The band draws out the introduction with Horne’s bass stalking through the center of it, taking their time to build the tension before the verse begins. This wasn’t too common an approach for a radio hit, where pop songs rushing in to secure immediacy was the received wisdom, and really still is.
Perhaps that’s what carried the band through their classic period; confidence, and innovation in terms of arrangements, and a talent for interesting textures. It would attract producers from John Punter (Roxy Music, Japan) who produced this album, to Nile Rodgers who produced the excellent follow-up album Talk Back in 1983.
The band would enjoy consistent chart hits in Canada up until late 1984, when the musical landscape changed, and line-ups changed too. But, the group would remain to be a concern on and off up until the present day, with Deppe and Horne being the key musical movers in a new version of the group, and with new material too – 2011’s Static in Transmission.
For more information about Spoons, check out Spoons official site.
And for some further discussion, check out this article about Spoons during the Arias & Symphonies era of the band.