The Spoon File, Part 1

With the release this week of They Want My Soul, now is an excellent opportunity to take a look back at the remarkable career of Spoon.  We here at Rust Is Just Right want to give novices a look at the elements that make up the Spoon sound, and how the band was able to become so reliably brilliant over the years that it was named the Metacritic Band of the Decade.  In addition, we want to point out our favorite highlights of each album, so you know what to look for when listening through their discography this weekend.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly constitutes the Spoon “sound”, but the band has developed a general style over the years that is identifiable to the trained ear.  I’ve read in a few interviews with the band how critics would deem their music “minimalistic”, but that’s not quite accurate; there are dynamics, melodies, and chord progressions, unlike the true “minimalist” music that’s more experimental in nature.  The better descriptor is “sparse”–Spoon doesn’t load up their songs with a lot of unnecessary filler, allowing the notes that each member plays to have room to breathe.

First, the band uses only a handful of tracks per song; there are not layers of guitars and keyboards and strings in a Spoon song.  Second, as Britt noted in an interview with The Guardian, the band early on took out the rhythm guitar in most songs, so that it doesn’t clog the music, and this philosophy extends to the other instruments as well.  The drums rarely rely on a ride cymbal or hi-hat to keep continuous track of the beat; the groove is felt through the precise emphasis of the rhythms of the bass and drums.  The  rhythms themselves aren’t particularly complex, but Spoon does a wonderful job of varying the way that they’re hit, shifting from drums to cymbals to tambourines to shakers and so on.  As for the “rhythm” guitar, it’s deployed in the same way as the bass and the drums, usually as a counterpoint, with the additional responsibility of providing the occasional burst of color with the odd chord or novel tone; pianos and keyboards are often deployed in the same way as well.  From these basic elements, Spoon has proven that it’s possible to assemble a wide variety of songs without repeating themselves; it also helps that the band also knows their way around a great melody or two.

The Spoon sound didn’t come fully developed; their debut Telephono almost sounds like the work of a completely different band, one that was much more indebted to 90’s alternative rock and 80’s post-punk.   A lot of critics compared this album to the Pixies, but the comparison is really only accurate in describing their emphasis on short songs and oft-kilter stories.  It’s much less oft-putting than the Pixies are on first listen, and filled with catchy hooks.  The band hadn’t developed the philosophy to rhythm guitar as mentioned above, so it’s much more prevalent on Telephono than on any of their later work.  Over the years, songs from Telephono gradually fell out of the band’s setlist, though songs like “Plastic Mylar” and “Don’t Buy the Realistic” still sound great today.  The follow-up Soft Effects EP continued in a similar vein, and “Mountain to Sound” and “I Could See The Dude” get the occasional spotlight in a set, and represent a key point in the early evolution of the band.

The band’s major label debut A Series of Sneaks saw the band smooth out some of the rough edges of their debut, cutting out some of the fat and sticking to the hooks.  It’s an album that still holds up well to this day, though it’s clearly of a different period than the traditional Spoon album.  But you can tell there’s a clear connection between many of the songs on Sneaks and their later work; “Car Radio” or “Utilitarian” can pop up in the middle of a Spoon show and it wouldn’t sound out of place at all, even if the piano player has to figure out something to do for a couple of minutes.  However, due to lackluster sales and turmoil at the record label, Spoon was dropped and left to their own devices to figure out what to do next; part of their thought process is heard on the re-release bonus tracks “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now” and “The Agony of Laffitte”, detailing their anger and feelings of betrayal.

The band responded to the lowest moment of their career (and to circumstances which would have killed most bands), with one of the greatest albums of the new millennium, Girls Can Tell.  While Telephono and A Series of Sneaks are fine efforts (especially the latter, which is unfortunately often forgotten when discussing the band’s oeuvre), they are a cut below the brilliant hot streak that would follow in their wake.  In our next and final part, we will discuss each of these albums in depth, which will hopefully serve as a bit of an appetizer to our review of their newest record, They Want My Soul.  But to give a taste of what to expect, here’s the definitive ranking of Spoon albums according to Rust Is Just Right, which should certainly end any such debates from ever occurring again.

1. Girls Can Tell

2. Gimme Fiction

3. Kill the Moonlight

4. Transference

5. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

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