Austin band continues rebuildling sound it stripped bare on Kill the Moonlight
Austin, Texas’ Spoon is one of those bands that seems forever on the cusp of breaking big. Its R&B-influenced shuck-and-jive has plenty of pop potential; it’s got a charismatic frontman in Britt Daniel; it’s accessible in any sense of the word. But Spoon has always been a bit too shifty for the mainstream, constantly tweaking and reinventing its sound in a way that makes the band di?cult to pigeonhole and, thus, package. Despite one ill-fated brush with the majors (1998 classic A Series of Sneaks), Spoon consistently released its albums on high-profile indies over its decade-long career. Its latest, for Merge Records, finds the band splitting the difference between the judicious effects and brutal starkness of Kill the Moonlight and the fuller, more rock-oriented sound of its last LP, Gimme Fiction.
Spoon is one of the few bands who could claim to be saving rock ’n’ roll with any validity at this point (not that they would ever make such a claim, being too smart for such facile mythmaking). Smart, but not intellectual; sly, but honest; urgent, yet controlled—these have always been the hallmarks of Spoon’s music. This is what distinguishes the band from what I regard as rock qua rock, reflexive music rehearsing a series of tropes that refer to little more than the act of rocking, all canned historical significance, no heart. Spoon has never resorted to this kind of posturing, which is why their music feels so much more alive than most rock—they’re always chasing some ephemeral intuition, heeding the song’s demands rather than the genre’s.
Nowhere was this intuitive approach more fruitful than on Spoon’s masterpiece Kill the Moonlight, the album where they stopped being simply a whip-smart rock band and became unclassifiable pop visionaries. They carved away anything that might have been perceived as excess from their extant sound, leaving only lean sinew and hard bone. It was catchy, soulful and experimental in the truest, most effective sense—Spoon was finding new ways to make its music even more listenable, more direct in its impact. Spare guitar figures jostled with jittery, minimal pianos and masterfully concise rhythms, creating a sound environ-ment that was somehow both claustrophobically close and infinitely spacious.
On their terrific but slightly pale-by-comparison follow-up, Gimme Fiction, Spoon was either unwilling or unable to recreate that lightning-flash inspiration, retreating into safer rock territory. Kill the Moonlight fans will be pleased to hear that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga finds them again venturing out on a limb—while it isn’t as austere as Kill the Moonlight, it scales back the grandeur of Gimme Fiction, leaning hard on production experiments to fill out its brisk 36 minutes. Daniel’s lyrics, while following broad associative arcs, seem to continually circle back toward pensive investigations of prosaic American experience and the wartime dread looming tacitly over it. “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” is flecked with references to preparing for bed, while “The Underdog” entreats us to “picture yourself in a living room, your pipe and slippers set out for you.” Daniel is palpating suburban America’s dream of security and stability, yet there’s a sense of menace hovering around these lines, a sense that becomes explicit in “Rhthm & Soul.” A stream of clipped imagery that begins with “tract houses” and “square couches” morphs into “tank rollers” by the time it’s done, creating a feedback loop between the hermetic lives we lead and their remote means of sustenance, a loop that plays out against a backdrop of wiry rock and whizzing sound effects.
On about half of the songs, where the sound effects fit into the songs intuitively, this approach serves the band unequivocally well. “Don’t Make Me a Target” is a creeping stomper in the classic Spoon vein—the bass and slashing guitars square off like prizefighters, blocky and tough, and prudent injections of handclaps and amp damage slot neatly into the song’s rolling pulse. “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” is terrifically punchy, with terse percussion, chunky riffs and spry horns, and the subtle echo effects on the vocals don’t clutter it up. “Don’t You Evah” has a bit of a spaghetti Western feel, its rattling maracas and scattered mechanical drum claps wisely understated. Jim Eno’s trap seethes on “Rhthm & Soul”; heavily compressed cymbal snippets push it pneumatically along beneath a big, whizzing bassline. And “Black Like Me” closes the album on a simple, bittersweet note that makes the faults of the more problematic songs seem all the more glaring.
While any given song on the album contains a memorable melodic passage or a compelling idea, some of them are more mixed in their results. When this happens, it’s always because Spoon is forgoing the intuition that guides its strongest songs and working in a stagier vein. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but this sort of construction isn’t Spoon’s strong suit. “The Ghost of You Lingers” is the most anomalous song on the album; of the songs that don’t quite gel, it’s also the best. An atmospheric cascade of reverb comprises its body; ghostly harmonies and quietly cooed vocals float through the mix. Taking its cues from Brian Eno and Genesis, it’s a compelling experiment in nuanced stasis, yet it feels somehow unfinished, as if it wants to break out of this inertia but isn’t allowed to for conceptual purposes. The random-seeming distortion effects that occasionally spike through it are emblematic of the record’s more questionable aspects.
So we get the self-explanatory “Eddie’s Ragga,” its squelchy keyboard embellishments and pointless vocal echoes serving only to distract from the lackluster, genre-bound core song. We get roots-rocker “The Underdog,” where Jon Brion takes over production duties from Mike McCarthy. Brion does what he can, but without much song to work with, his ebullient horns and sharp handclap pivots make it sound a bit like a used-car-dealership commercial. We get “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case,” which builds in intensity but not in effect, where odd noises and incongruous flamenco-guitar runs squander the song’s steady momentum, and we get “finer Feelings,” the most egregious offender in the “pile stuff on until the track collapses under its own weight” category. While Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga includes plenty of stuff for Spoon fans to love, it sometimes stresses the threshold of our affection with its less-fertile sallies into studio wizardry. Knowing Spoon, though, by the time the next album rolls around, they’ll have ripped it up and started over anyway.