When artists choose to rerecord old songs, it’s often decades into an illustrious career. But with just three albums to her name, the ever-reflective Chrystia Cabral aka Spellling is already revisiting her past work, breathing new life into pre-existing songs by recreating them fully orchestrated by her touring band.
“Spellling & the Mystery School” covers the Californian artist’s idiosyncratic career, from the eerie, shadowy minimalism of her 2017 debut “Pantheon of Me”, through the futuristic, alien synth-scapes of 2019’s “Mazy Fly”, to her magnificent, mystical ode to the natural world, 2021’s “The Turning Wheel”.
The tracks from “Pantheon of Me” are the most dramatically transformed, the original album being instrumentally the sparsest of the three. Cabral swaps synths for earthier strings on the spacey opener “Walk Up to Your House” and brightens up “They Start the Dance” with Jaren Feeley’s light, jazzy piano. Instead of the cavernous reverb swimming around Cabral’s voice on “Phantom Farewell”, backing singers fill in the celestial backdrop.
One of the most transformative changes to the tracks on the album is the addition of live percussion by Patrick Shelley. Shelley’s drumming turns the tightly controlled, programmed beats of tracks like 2019’s “Haunted Water” into wilder, more visceral grooves.
“Hard to Please (Reprise)” undergoes a stunning metamorphosis from the witchy original sliced through with whizzing, zipping synths, to a hushed, floating R&B cut. “Under the Sun”, released as a single along with “Cherry” in July, fuses flickering electronics with sleek strings, creating a beautiful, gloomy disco track.
Cabral closes the album with four songs from “The Turning Wheel”. Already heavily orchestrated in their original forms, it’s harder to imagine how these tracks could be enriched. “Always” is actually stripped back, golden horns and lavish strings giving way to rippling piano and softly glowing guitar chords. Jazz piano and noodling guitar tangle together on the ecstatic outro to “Revolution”, before Cabral closes the album with the delicate coda “Sweet Talk”.
Where some tracks are richer and busier than their originals, others are cooler and lighter, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Cabral could have been much bolder. “Boys at School”, the magnificent eight minute centrepiece of her last album, for example, provides a perfect platform for the band to take flight into spontaneous solos and experimentation. But what we end up with is more or less the 2021 version with some different instruments. Despite this missed opportunity, the album neatly ties together three distinct albums into one cohesive unit, making for an intriguing listen while fans eagerly await Spellling’s next original project.