Album Review: Spice, Gold And Tales Untold by Ana Patan

A decade in the making but offering surely more than ten years of enjoyment for your ears, Ana Patan’s Spice, Gold and Tales Untold is an album that delights in air, light, and above all the song. The arrangements are limited to drums, bass, guitar, and vocal, all played as proper ‘takes’ and with minimal effects or post-production processing. Careful attention is given to tone and space between the instruments, resulting in a very live but very clean sound put down in analog to 2” tape (more than 200lbs of it, all told). This approach drops the listener right in the studio, as though in the midst of a series of relaxed, effortless live takes.

Patan has assembled quite the cabal of collaborators, enlisting for bass duties Jonas Hellborg, Jonathan Herrera, and even Devin Townsend. She covers all guitars and vocals. And on drums is the mighty Zoltán Csörz (who played on what is arguably the greatest progressive rock album of the 21st century thus far). These players bring incredible feel and finesse to the album’s uncomplicated structures: each song sets a groove and keeps the listener deep in that pocket. And the sound of the pocket?—World-influenced grooving folk-jazz with undertones of grunge-inflected alternative rock. And Patan’s voice excels at it all, from singer-songwriter to jazz crooner to fifth Non Blonde. 

As befits its position, opening track “Spice, Gold And Tales Untold” provides both title and template for the album to follow. Taken as a celebration of the domestic feline, the lyrical descriptions manage both cleverness and sublimity. One might also view these lyrics as upending cultural valuation of the feminine; “women are a mystery” is a common dismissive, but many religions practice meditation focused on mysteries. As setting for such a meditation, the drums lounge and shuffle, the guitar twinkles, and the bass sings in expressive diphthongs. The overall effect mimics the feel of a lazy stretch in the afternoon sunlight, but you don’t have to be a cat to bask in the warmth of Patan’s voice.

A pair of love songs bring the lighting down as befits the intimacy of their directness. “Trivialize Love” might well be set on a loveseat flanked on either side by lava lamps; the lyrics first feign distance by acknowledging the inherent limitations of the love song as an art form, but the careful quietness in Patan’s delivery emphasizes the closeness and importance of her chosen form of expression. Devin Townsend’s downright musicianship comes to the fore here as his bass playing eschews the ‘everything plus *two* kitchen sinks’ of his metal productions in favour of a nearly understated but melodic and playful counterpoint to Patan’s clean electric guitar (even the brief moments of overdrive feature such a delightfully anachronistically clean sound). Meanwhile, in “Hot Hot” the firelight in this late-night cafe flickers just brightly enough to show the wry smile on Patan’s face as her lyrics again feign a flirtatious distance before leaning in with an equally flirtatious directness. It’s all in the title, and again the band’s tone perfectly captures the atmosphere with extended instrumental sections.

Full-on summer sun enlivens the unrelentingly upbeat “Soarele Meu” (“My Sun” in Romanian). Patan puts on her bravest face in this bop of a break-up song; with quite the joie de vivre she tells a guy who broke up with her how sorry she is for him, because her sun will rise again but he won’t be there to see it. The entire aesthetic approach of the album comes together here as the live-ish performance and analog recording exudes warmth and a playfulness in the playing. Hellborg’s bass takes lead here as a sort of second lyrical line alongside Patan’s vocals, and there’s a lovely melodic guitar solo. The effect is anthemic.

Finally stepping into the figuratively literal limelight of a club stage, Patan & Co. jam their way through “How Could We Live Before,” which comes off as a long-lost George Gershwin composition as jauntified by a mid-60’s Dean Martin. It’s the kind of commentary on modernity that would be overbearing in the hands of a ‘serious artist’; here, it’s the sound of a fun performance that can make you think if you like, but will make you tap your toes whether you like it or not.

To close the proceedings, “Colors on Hormones” takes the best elements of Spice, Gold And Tales Untold and just ramps it all up further. Csörz shines here, playing with such intricacy and tasteful freneticism that I swear he’s playing both twice as many and half as many notes as are actually there. Did you know you can headbang to grooving Latin jazz? Meanwhilst, Hellborg’s bass sounds full and warm, stretching gracefully between notes as though a yogi transitioning between positions; Patan’s guitar weaves through, exuding melody as almost a second vocalist on the track. Thematically, we’re exposed to the disorienting city lights of Hong Kong: “Day and night/Colors spread uncontrolled…” Yet, however disturbing the narrator’s experience, her descriptions are grounding as the city itself fades into background against specific points of color. And I don’t think I’ve heard a better expression of the feeling of being in a high rise hotel than “I am lying on a windowsill/Just twenty floors below the top of the world.” Music, lyric, and performance converge perfectly. Do yourself a solid and have a look at the lyric sheet while listening through headphones.

Dedication to a deceptive simplicity imbued with richness of subtleties; revelry in wit, warmth, and joy; the centering of Patan’s beautiful voice—for these reasons and more that you will discover,
Spice, Gold And Tales Untold is a winner. Listen early and often.