Gimme Fiction

Catching Up On The Week (Nov. 6 Edition)

Some #longreads as you settle in for the weekend…

Spoon’s Gimme Fiction will be getting the deluxe edition/re-issue treatment for its tenth anniversary this December, but you can visit the site “Gimme Facts” right now to read the oral history of the album that comes with the package.  It was compiled by one of our favorite writers, Sean O’Neal (of the AV Club and others), so it should be well worth your time.

Last week, we shared a serious interview with Maynard James Keenan, and this week we have a fun one for you–read his hilarious responses to the AV Club’s “11 Questions“.

Esteemed critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine has to read a lot of rock star memoirs as a part of his job, but he makes it easy for the public by pulling out some of the best tidbits of six new autobiographies for this Vulture piece, filling you in on stories about John Fogerty, Carrie Brownstein, Elvis Costello, and others.

Finally, Esquire made Noel Gallagher their cover star for December, so of course they have an extensive interview with the man filled with his entertaining ramblings.

Spoon, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

After taking a five year break from visiting Portland, Spoon returned last night for their second show in less than six months, but even with the quick turnaround the fans last night were excited to see the one-time locals once again.  Breaking free from the tentativeness of their previous festival-headlining slot at MusicFestNW, the band seemed energized to bring their show back to a more intimate venue with a devoted audience.  It makes one wish that Spoon would stop by every month of the year.

Hopefully we won't have to use this photo for the next concert as well.

Hopefully we won’t have to use this photo for the next concert as well.

It was clear almost immediately that the time spent touring in support of their excellent new album They Want My Soul was well-spent, as the band sounded crisper and more spirited than they did at their show this past summer.  Even during moments when it seemed like not everyone was in sync, there was still a feeling of calm that they would let any temporary road bumps slide and they could line up again soon enough.  This palpable sense of trust in each other allowed the band to flash some showier stage tricks (like Britt Daniel pulling a Johnny Cash and aiming his guitar as a gun to add an exclamation point to some of his licks) or recover quickly from quick fuckups (like Britt dropping the mic in “The Way We Get By”).

At this point it is nearly impossible for Spoon to come up with a bad setlist, considering they’ve released six stellar albums in a row, and as a result the band can choose freely from a deep catalog.  Though it was a bit disappointing for me personally to have Girls Can Tell shut out, that was balanced out by hearing hidden gems like “They Never Got You” from Gimme Fiction and “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case”.  Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga made up the lion’s share of the set, with a punched-up and dramatic version of “The Ghost Of You Lingers” being a standout of the early part of the set.  Driving numbers like “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “Don’t Make Me A Target” got the crowd bouncing along, with more than a few totally cutting loose during main set closer “Got Nuffin'”.

Britt takes stock of the audience

Britt takes stock of the audience

The encore kicked off with the fantastic “Black Like Me”, though it was a bit disappointing to have the crowd not respond en masse with the “yeah”s and “oh yeah”s.  I suspected that the cover that the band played was from The Cramps, and I was proud to see that my suspicions were confirmed as they indeed played their song “My TV Set” (while I try to be as knowledgeable as possible, my expertise is not perfect, and I only have a rudimentary knowledge of the band).  Spoon finished the night with “a song that I wrote in Southeast”, and the audience was overjoyed to hear that the ebullient “The Underdog” was a local product.  We can only hope that Britt comes back for more inspiration soon.

A Giant Dog were the first openers, and they were an energetic group that kept spirits high; it was nice to hear Britt plug their other show that night at Dante’s, noting though that if you saw him there to not talk to him because he wanted to truly take in their music.  Future Islands, despite all the accolades they’ve received so far, did little to impress despite my intention to approach them with an open mind; instead, I feel as if it may be necessary to note specifically what it is that bothers me about their sound, but I don’t want to take away any more from the main act.  Spoon delivered a superb show, and it’s wonderful to see their career continue to thrive.

Feats of Strength: Spoon

We might as well finish things off this week with our Band of the Week, Spoon.  You would think that after all this time spent carefully analyzing the band’s albums and career over the past few days that we had covered everything, and to tell the truth, you would be partially correct: we did mention this particular moment on Tuesday.  But indulge us and allow us to examine a particular moment of brilliance from the band, the spastic guitar solo from “The Beast and Dragon, Adored”.

[For listening purposes, the solo occurs at around the three minute mark]

To the untrained ear, the guitar solo in this song is reminiscent of what many people say when confronted with modern art–“My kid could paint that.”  It’s true that on a superficial level the guitar solo sounds like a rather amateurish effort–similar to our previous Feats of Strength, in which we paid tribute to “shitty drumming”, but not quite.  It sounds like the kind of solo that a novice would attempt when he/she gets tired of practicing scales and wants to just rock out for a few seconds and unleash that rawk-n-roll spirit.  In other words, it sounds a lot like aural hot garbage.

In reality, it takes a lot of skill to sound that “bad”.  Take it from a musician who’s played guitar for dozens of years and is still more comfortable with writing a traditional fretboard-burner than a freakout like this one.  It may sound like a mess of random notes, but that’s not really accurate; the exact notes were not planned out, but the general plan was determined well in advance.  The use of dissonant tones and a chromatic scale were pre-planned, and Britt’s rhythm is spot-on, speeding up and repeating notes as necessary.  It is the definition of “controlled chaos”.

The solo also needs to be considered within the context of both the song and of Spoon’s music in general.  The band has a reputation for absolute precision, with each part carefully constructed to fit within the perfect space in the music.  Even on their more energetic and rocking songs, the band never loses control of the music, and they always maintain a tight feel.  This is present in the song as well–aside from the lead guitar, every instrument is locked into place, and played at a measured and precise tempo.  The lead guitar then comes in and shocks the listener, disturbing the previously imagined order.  If another band had attempted the same trick, it wouldn’t have the same resonance or power because this moment goes against everything we’ve expected from Spoon.  It makes for an incredibly compelling live performance as well, as this is one of the few moments where the audience sees Britt completely lose himself to the music as he falls to the floor to wring out all the emotion possible from the solo.  At this point, the audience now understands that when they believe, they call it rock’n’roll.

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.

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