Spirit Touches Ground is the bittersweet coda to Josh Clayton-Felt’s recording career. The bitter part of the story comes from the fact that Clayton-Felt died of cancer at the age of just 32 in 2000. The sweet part is the rootsy, warm rock found on the album.
Though the name may be only vaguely familiar, Clayton-Felt’s voice and songwriting came to prominence in the early ’90s with his L.A.-based band School of Fish. Clayton-Felt’s high, penetrating voice and magic realist lyrics combined with Michael Ward’s (now of the Wallflowers) massive wall-of-chords guitar work to make their self-titled debut album a neo-psychedelic classic in 1991. Best-known is the buzzing iconic odyssey song “Three Strange Days,” but other standouts include the stomping “King of the Dollar,” moderate, insistent “Speechless,” the melancholia and backbeat of “Rose Colored Glasses,” and best of all, the hook-crazy, poignant study of self-deception, “Wrong.”
The band’s second album, Human Cannonball, though still fine, was less immediate and got lost in the flood of grunge two years later. Clayton-Felt’s first solo album, Inarticulate Nature Boy, on A&M was a lighter, funky departure and confused School of Fish fans in 1996. He got caught up in the record industry turmoil of the late-’90s, had a finished record shelved, then was dropped by A&M.
Clayton-Felt, originally from Boston, worked on Spirit for three years prior to his death. The album highlights his persuasive humanity, gift for mainline rock singing and songwriting (from a magical land where John Fogerty, Billy Squier and Jeff Buckley can sing and play together) and a newfound, relaxed maturity. “Building Atlantis” bounces along on a classic acoustic and electric guitar progression and memory-lodging melody (I kept humming it in my sleep last night), “Diamond In Your Heart” is hard-edged power pop from Squier-land, “Too Cool For This World” is a touching, delicate ballad, “Kid On the Train” and the title track bring back some of the funky groove of his first solo album, and “Dragonfly” is an eerie, tom-tom driven rumination on spiritual transcendence.