The Spoon File, Part 2

In Part 1 of our Spoon feature last week, we went over the elements that make up the Spoon “sound” as well as their early work.  In Part 2, we’re closely examining Spoon’s brilliant stretch of work from Girls Can Tell to Transference, making sure to highlight key tracks and themes.

Kicking off one of the most impressive hot streaks in rock history, Girls Can Tell is an artistic triumph that remains one of the greatest records released since the beginning of this century.  It’s an album that is truly timeless–it sounds as fresh today as it did back in 2001, and has a classic sensibility that would have fit into the music scene at any point in the past 30 years, but would not have a “dated” quality that would make it sound like a product of a particular era.  Its themes and sensibilities make it the perfect late night album, as the songs explore and evoke feelings of quiet contemplation and reminiscences tinged with slight regret; it’s nostalgic without being overbearingly so, a quality that is rare to find these days.

The album also marked a stylistic shift into the now classic Spoon sound, as the band brought in pianos and keyboards while placing the guitar more in the background.  This change is clear from the classic opener, “Everything Hits At Once”, which begins with a light bouncy keyboard figure with the guitar used sparingly to provide accents to melodic ideas.  The memorable first lines set the tone for the album: “Don’t say a word–the last one’s still stinging.”  The directness of that command is a jarring emotional cut for the listener, and exposes feelings of not just anger from the narrator but vulnerability as well.  While seemingly a traditional tale of moving on from an unpleasant breakup, the words take on a second meaning when considered against the backdrop of the band’s release from their record label prior to the recording of this album.  Though you can sense the bitterness throughout, there is still some hope, as Britt repeats the lines “I can still change my mind tonight.”

Girls Can Tell is filled with perfect segues, including how “Everything Hits at Once” merges beautifully into “Believing is Art”.   The song modifies some of the melodic figures of the previous one by adding a bit more jagged guitar as well as a quicker beat, two elements that help set up songs later in the album.  “Lines in the Suit” and “The Fitted Shirt” form another inspired combination, both thematically (in obvious and not-obvious ways) and musically.  “Lines” alternates between a bouncy verse and a disheartening chorus, and again works as a commentary on their response to the pitfalls of the music business, with the resulting feelings of being young yet washed up (there’s a direct reference to their early work with the lines “I’m listening to ‘Mountain To Sound’ [from the Soft Effects EP] and the way it’s panned is cool”).  However, it’s the powerful vignette that Britt depicts in the bridge, where he introduces a previously unmentioned character, that is most memorable:

“The human resource clerk has two cigarettes and back to work; she eats right but hurts.  And she says it could’ve been good by now–it could’ve been more than a wage.  How come she feels so washed up at such a tender age now?  It could’ve been easier.”

The listener can instantly form a mental picture of this woman and immediately grasp at her inner emotional turmoil, all in the span of a couple of lines, proving that Britt Daniel has skills that most songwriters only wish they could have.  With “The Fitted Shirt”, Spoon flips the imagery, with the fancy clothing no longer being a target of ire but instead a totem of a warmly remembered past with his father.  Musically, the repetitive guitar figure in the verse does a great job of mirroring the drudgery of the everyday rat-race, and the descending line in the chorus helps emphasize the feelings of nostalgia.  Lyrically, the band capably manages to romanticize the past without sounding like bitter/naive old men, and somehow make the act of wearing an old fitted shirt an act of rebellion–a sentiment matched by the increased fury of the music.

The album ends with another excellent pairing, with the instrumental “This Book Is A Movie” providing an excellent introduction to the closer “Chicago At Night”.  It helps settle the listener after the (relatively) raucous “Take the Fifth”, and with the help of a few deftly placed mysterious guitar chords helps set the mood for the aforementioned enigmatic track.  “Chicago At Night” helps capture the feelings of alienation lurking throughout the album, with its constant references to a wall and its repeated mantra of “Everybody’s at disadvantage speaking with their second language.”  It’s almost sinister, and by any objective evaluation should be considered to be a downer of an ending, but somehow Spoon makes the listener comfortable with its ambiguity, and satisfied with the album’s conclusion.

And to think, I didn’t even get the chance to mention “Me and the Bean”, a personal favorite and a song that’s so great that most people don’t even realize it’s a cover, since it sounds in many ways like a typical Spoon track.  Even the cover is chosen with great care, as it also explores looking back through the past through the eyes of a partnership between an older man and younger woman.  The initial dismissal by the former turns into acceptance of the importance of the latter, first as a symbiotic relationship (“I’ll bring you cover when you’re cold; you’ll bring me youth when I grow old”) and then total dependence (“I am your shadow in the dark; I have your blood inside my heart”); with three short verses (and no real chorus, besides some oh-o-o’s), we get the entire relationship between two people over a lifetime.

Kill The Moonlight followed the template established in Girls Can Tell, but cleaned up the production a bit and added a bit of an edge to most of the songs.  Tempos picked up on several songs, and even on some of the softer tracks the band approached their instruments with a bit more ferocity.  Piano/keys began to take an even more dominant role in the music, as evidenced by the opener “Small Stakes” which focuses on different variations of a playful organ riff (save for a tambourine), reserving the entrance of a chaotic drumset for the end.  “The Way We Get By” is probably the song that most people know from the album, which again uses the piano as its driving force, this time opting for a jazzier/swingier vibe as Britt spins tales of misfits growing up tying various references to Stooges songs (“Shake Appeal”, “Some Weird Sin”, and “Down on the Street”, for the record) to certain rites of passages.

The band also begins to show their eye for experimentation, like with the studio-processed percussion of “Paper Tiger” and “Stay Don’t Go”, or the various production tricks of “Back to the Life”.  Spoon manages to make these oddball touches sound almost organic, and never like mere gimmickry, and they’re able to fit right alongside more classic sounding songs like “Someone Something” or “All The Pretty Girls Go To The City”.  The true heart of the album may be in the raging “Jonathon Fisk”, whose emphasis on a driving guitar call back to the earlier incarnation of the band, except for perhaps the horn lines that pop up at certain points in the track that indicate their newfound appreciation for jazzier influences.  And just as they did before, Spoon ends the album with an excellent ballad, “Vittorio E.”, a song that to the listener provides a fitting resolution to the album, with its delicate acoustic guitar (mirrored by piano) and looping melodies, even as it ends with the repeated line of “It goes on.”

My first introduction to Spoon was with their next album Gimme Fiction and its unconventional lead single “I Turn My Camera On.”  I was working in radio at the time, and I remember being utterly bewildered when I heard it for the first time, wondering to myself how it could be these guys that I had heard so much about from music critics.  But I quickly came to appreciate the charms of Britt’s falsetto and marvel how the band could make a song with such an insistent straight beat sound so funky.  I made sure to quickly grab a copy of the rest of the album, and it soon became a favorite of mine.

The opener “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” gave a clue that Spoon was now interested in deconstructing a lot of the basic elements of rock and putting them back together in an unconventional manner.  When listening to the song, the structure seems relatively normal, but when you learn the music you realize that the different verse and chorus figures never follow the same pattern, and instead add and drop chord progressions at random.  It gives the whole song a disorienting feel that would be otherwise impossible to determine.  The melodies themselves are great at building up a mysterious, foreboding air, and the band writes great lyrics that give an almost-mythic sense to the music.  The line “When you don’t feel it, it shows, they tear out your soul–And when you believe they call it rock and roll” is one of my all-time favorites and gives the sense that Spoon is fighting for the future of rock music as we know it, and is a brilliant setup for Britt’s spastic guitar solo that is the very definition of controlled chaos.  It may sound like random noise, but it takes serious musical skill to pull off something that dissonant and make it still fit the song.

Even with more conventional rockers like “Sister Jack”, Spoon tweaks the formula in subtle ways that help capture the listener’s attention.  The chord progression elongates some of the time spent on certain chords (a technique that is more clearly heard in the last few iterations in the song), providing some added tension, and helping to underline the emotions of betrayal that are evident from the lyrics (“But I can’t relax with my knees on the ground and a stick in my back”).  Then there is the absurdity of the title character, “Sister Jack”, which is never actually explained in the lyrics.  The tweaking of gender identities is found elsewhere on the album, most notably in “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine”.  It took the video for me to realize the storyline that was hidden in plain view, but a subtle tweak between the first and third verses provides the plot twist: in the first verse, the role that M. Valentine wishes to play “gets to sword-fight the duke, he kidnaps the queen”, but in the third verse “he makes love to the duke, he sword-fights the queen.”

Musically, the band places less emphasis on keys, though “My Mathetmatical Mind” proves to be an exception to the rule as its jazzy piano drives the tune, and in many ways represents the quintessential Spoon track.  In fact, there were a few times I heard commercials with backing music that imitated the song, surely the result of some ad executive demanding something Spoon-esque but unable to pay the licensing fee for the real deal.  Instead, acoustic guitar takes a more prominent role in many songs, like the excellent “I Summon You” and “The Delicate Place”, though the band makes sure that each strum is heard cleanly and doesn’t bleed from one stroke to the next.  It still sounds like “Spoon”.

Spoon would return with the tight and poppy Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which is probably best-known for its ebullient single “The Underdog”, a song whose effervescent horns recall for many Billy Joel, and not in a punchline kind of way.  It has an infectious bounce and great incisive lyrics that help propel its positive message, and if you listen to it when you wake up it’s a great way to start your day.  Another standout track is the buoyant and irrepressible “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”, whose driving beat and soulful beat lift up the spirits of the listener, but mask what is actually a downer of a song.  The music sounds so joyful, but the lyrics are all about the end of a relationship; even the central conceit of the cherry bomb is a reference to this, as the mentions of blowing out the cherry bomb are surrounded by lines like “We lost it long ago”, ‘I watched you start that drive alone”, and “Get yourself to bed”.  It’s the happiest song about a breakup you’ll probably ever hear

The five best songs from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (“Don’t Make Me A Target”; “Finer Feelings”; “Black Like Me”; and the two previously mentioned ones) rank up with the best that Spoon has ever done, but on the whole I always have difficulty recommending this album over any of their others.  The issue is not that the other five songs are bad–they’re all quite good, aside from “Don’t You Evah” which I would appreciate much more if the local radio station had chosen any other song on the album but that one to drive into the ground–it’s just that the Fab Five are so much better, that it creates an imbalance that you don’t really find on their other albums.

“Don’t Make Me A Target” initially sounds like a remake of “The Beast and Dragon, Adored”, but the fact that the entire song revolves around variations of the same riff, played differently according to the emotional mood of the lyrics, instead of the unsettled progression as outlined above, makes it an entirely different animal.  That said, the breakdown into the guitar solo is a great partner to the Gimme Fiction track, and both are highlights of any Spoon show.  “Finer Feelings” is simply a perfect pop song, filled with memorable lines like “A hundred yard stare of a kiss–Lord, I know I’ll never miss it” and “I was part-time at the Tasty Prawn–that and moving furniture and cutting lawns”, as well as the ingenious wordplay of using the Memphis newspaper Commercial Appeal in the chorus.  Musically, the bass does a great job of locking into a bouncing groove, the guitar does a great job of providing the right rhythm accents and then twisting it into the chorus melody, and the fun studio tricks of using different samples and incorporating the talkback in the studio between the room and the performance area provide a nice color to the song without overwhelming it.   And the closer “Black Like Me” is a great lovelorn ballad, one that plays the cruel trick of seeming to be just about to explode when the song suddenly stops, but somehow it works.  “All the weird kids up front, tell me what you know you want–someone to take care of tonight.”

Spoon then closed out the decade with Transference, and it was at this point that it seems that critics got tired of writing praise for a consistently brilliant band and began taking them for grand.  I feel like I need to start a support group for fans of this underrated album–well, as underrated an album can be when it still maintains a rating of universal acclaim at 80 on Metacritic.  In many ways, it’s almost a reaction to the easygoing nature of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, but there are gems that are ready to be found.  Part of the allure is that there are so many subtly subversive tricks to the album that delight music obsessives; for instance, the band put the lead single and biggest rocker “Got Nuffin'” as the tenth track of an eleven track album.  The band also indulges in some of the studio trickery that they had only previously dabbled in, incorporating more talkback in different songs as well as switching between demo instrumental tracks (the rougher sounding spots) and regular studio tracks.  It gives the album a really great raw and stitched-together feel, and is an excellent rebuttal against their earlier meticulous production.

There are some truly great songs on Transference that should rank high on any Spoon fan’s list, like the energetic and spirited “Trouble Comes Running”.  In many ways, its pop sensibilities would be perfect for Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, but there are subtle tweaks that make it a natural fit for Transference; there’s the mix between demo and studio guitar for one, but then there’s the general approach of keeping the guitars as thin as possible when the natural melodic pull of the song would push other artists to fatten it up as big as possible.  “I Saw The Light” uses its initial 6/8 triplet feel to create some excellent tension, and Jim Eno deserves a great amount of credit by switching on a dime to a straight-ahead 6/4 time signature, and seemingly cutting the climax at its knees.  The fact that the lyrics cut out as soon as this time change occurs should be a signal to the listener that this is the exact moment that the narrator “saw the light”.  But the outro almost raises more questions than it answers, as the chords continues to follow a descending pattern, while the guitars and piano hit on odd beats, so the listener is left to wonder exactly what it is the narrator “saw”.  The album also includes two of the finest ballads of the band’s career with the gorgeous “Out Go The Lights” and the delicate and touching “Goodnight Laura”, songs which unfortunately have seemed to have gone overlooked in the years since the album’s release.

Where does They Want My Soul stack up within this great run?  We’ll have the full review tomorrow, but we’ll say this now: it is definitely a fitting companion.

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