Perfect Sound Forever

SPINVIS


Photo: Alexander Kellner [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Spinvis am Haldern Pop Festival 2019 - 06

The Quintessential Nederpop Album
by Illes Plompen


As someone who was born and raised in the Netherlands, I've always thought we have a very strange relationship with our own music scene. Unlike England, France, Germany and most other European countries, we rarely champion homegrown acts, and the ones we do, often don't have anything 'Dutch' about them and instead just feel like our take on existing trends and styles within British or American popular music (Shocking Blue, Herman Brood, Bettie Serveert etc.). On top of that, most Dutch artists write all their lyrics in English. The main reason for this is obviously to reach a bigger audience, since relatively few people around the world speak Dutch, but I think it's also partly due to the fact that singing or rapping in the Dutch language is generally frowned upon by Dutch music fans, because of its association with tacky, commercial pap like Frans Bauer, Guus Meeuwis and more recently Lil Kleine. 'Nederpop' (a catch-all term for Dutch pop music) has pretty much become a dirty word; something lame and uncool that most people do not want to be associated with.

That being said, there are some notable exceptions. Artists who – despite never really 'making it' internationally – have retained a steady cult-following, and though there haven't been enough of them doing a similar thing at the same time to talk about a real 'movement' in the same way we talk about Britpop, krautrock, Italo disco or French house, there have been some great records along the way. Records that perfectly represent what Dutch culture is all about, while still being an artistic statement that can be enjoyed by people outside of the Netherlands. And if there's one album that does this best in my opinion, it's Spinvis' self-titled debut.

Spinvis is the legendary bedroom-pop project of songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Erik de Jong. De Jong was born in 1961 and grew up in Utrecht; one of the Netherlands' largest cities. With both of his parents being professional musicians, de Jong started playing music at a very young age and joined his brother's punk rock band Blitzkrieg (later called The Duds) when he was about fifteen years old. From that moment on, writing songs and playing shows was all he cared about, and he becane a key figure in Utrecht's emerging punk scene. When The Duds broke up in 1979, de Jong formed the more new wave inspired Hi-Jinx (whose guitarist René van Barneveld would later join the Urban Dance Squad). After Hi-Jinx went their separate ways, de Jong moved to Nieuwegein and started working as a postman while continuing to write and record songs in his attic during his leisure time. Some of these recordings have since been put online by fans.

Though his warm, lo-fi recording style and eclectic use of samples and drum machines is already present on these demos, de Jong hadn't quite developed his signature vocal style yet. All the songs are sung in English and both the lyrics and his delivery are pretty generic to be honest. Nowhere near as eccentric and captivating as they would be on his proper debut, but I'll get to that later.

Somewhere in the late '90's, de Jong started recording music under the name 'Spinvis.' Though he still recorded everything in his attic on relatively simple, amateurish equipment, the new material sounded a lot more crisp and detailed production-wise and is also more influenced by electronic music. In 2001, de Jong sent a cassette tape with some of his Spinvis recordings to Dutch indie-label Excelsior. The people at Excelsior were so enthusiastic about the tape that they offered him a multiple-album contract right away. In April 2002, Spinvis puts out his full-length self-titled debut via the label. The album was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews from the Dutch press and quickly gains a huge cult following. And it's not hard to see why.



Musically, the album offers a lot of variety. Its influences range from trip-hop and downtempo electronica to indie-pop, psychedelic rock and funk, but the lo-fi production and de Jong's recognizable vocals somehow tie it all together and make every song feel like a cohesive statement. And though the album as a whole can feel a little all-over-the-place stylistically, that might also be one of its strongest selling points. I've heard so many quirky guitar-strummer/singer-songwriters where I like their lyrics. enjoy their songs but I can't listen to one of their albums from front to back because it just bores the ass of off me. Maybe it's because I'm still in my early twenties; maybe it's because I'm a millennial and I have an attention span of 12 seconds but I need some variety in terms of the dynamics or the instrumental pallet or something to keep myself engaged. The fact that Spinvis uses both electronic and live instrumentation and can go from a cutesy, Smiths-inspired ballad like “Ronnie Gaat Naar Huis” to a psychedelic, almost big-beat sounding jam like In “De Staat Van Narcose” is what makes listening to this album such a colorful experience from beginning to end. It gives Spinvis' music character and sets him apart from your average singer-songwriter.

What also sets him apart are his eccentric vocals: his delivery sounds introverted and somewhat disjointed, but his voice is always very calm and relaxed. And not in a 'too-cool-to-care' Lou Reed sort of way. It's actually kind of awkward at first but the more you listen to it, the more you start to appreciate his understated, spoken word-like style 'cause it doesn't feel like a put-on. There's something very sincere and intimate about it. And the warm, lo-fi production perfectly complements that. Especially on more laid-back cuts like the wonderfully subtle opener “Bagagedrager.”

Plus, there's something quintessentially Dutch about his vocals. Dutch people don't exaggerate or dramatize things for the sake of it. One of our most well-known sayings is “doe maar normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg,” which roughly translates to “just act normal, that's crazy enough.” And Spinvis fully embodies that mindset. Even on more experimental tracks like “Handige Tante, Jongen Met Geld,” it doesn't feel like de Jong is pretending to be anything other than his normal self. For as quirky as he gets, he always sounds very sincere and down-to-earth. And it's that unfiltered sincerity, that lack of irony or pretention, that gives Spinvis an unmistakably Dutch quality.

But if there's one thing that makes his self-titled debut one of the greatest Nederpop albums of all time. For me, it's his lyrics. Very few Nederpop artists even dare to write in the Dutch language and those who do fail to deliver the same amount of wit and emotional depth as Spinvis. He has so many insanely-quotable lines on this album, like:

“Vandaag knipte ik een muis in twee, en die naaide ik toen mooi maar weer aan elkaar”
(translation: “today I cut a mouse in half, and then I sewed him back together”)

or

“Het is altijd wat en altijd spijt, van al het geld en alle tijd, op de onverharde wegen die je naar hier hebben geleid”
(translation: there's always something and always regrets, for all the money and all the time, on the unpaved roads that have led you here”)

His lyrics are abstract, thought-provoking and make very creative use of the Dutch language. And it's this poetic way of playing around with words and the feelings they evoke that is severely missing from a lot of Nederpop. Because most Nederpop artists sing in English – a language that is not their native tongue – there's a certain detachment from what they're singing about. And I'm not saying you can't properly communicate something in a different language (that'd be kind of hypocritical of me, since I'm not writing this article in my native language either), but I think there will always be a bigger gap between the initial feeling and the way you put that feeling into foreign words than if you were a native speaker.

And that's what makes Spinvis and his debut album so special to me. It's the sound of a man erasing the gap between him, his music and what he sings about. It actually makes a lot of sense that de Jong was already in his early forties when he recorded this material. That's 'cause music like this can only come from someone with a rich musical past and a decent amount of life experience. Someone who's grown completely comfortable with themselves, able to make something that feels like an honest, unfiltered representation of who they are and where they come from.

So, if you enjoy oddball singer-songwriters like Tom Waits or early Beck, or more lo-fi indie-rock stuff like Pavement, The Beta Band or The Microphones, you check this album out. I understand that there's a bit of language barrier (since most of you probably don't speak Dutch), but even if you don't understand a single word of it, this album still has a lot to offer musically and can be a great introduction to Nederpop as a whole.

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