Until recently, when discussing Austin's favorite sons, Spoon, you typically came across fans who either loved them dearly or were indifferent. What you didn't often encounter was impassioned hatred, perhaps because the band makes the kind of slinky but meticulous pop that can just as easily breeze inoffensively past the casual listener as it can ensnare and intrigue those inclined to repeated listens.
Formed in 1993, Spoon has spent the last decade-plus evolving from a scruffy college band from the Pixies school of rock to a sophisticated pop act. Their brush with ubiquity came with the falsetto-disco bomp of "I Turn My Camera On" from 2005's Gimme Fiction, made possible by its appearance in a Jaguar commercial. Sonically, it's a misleading track that isn't indicative of the band's catalog, but it still hinges on what many Spoon songs do: a balance of sparseness and richness, skeletal songs fleshed out with bursts of ornamentation.
The good news for latecomers to the Spoon party is that the band's sixth album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, is as good an entry to the band as any, because here they've perfected that scrupulous approach, and it pleases on first play but gratifies after dozens more. It's the kind of tension-and-restraint craftsmanship that's likely a result of toiling just under the radar and away from the pressures of commercial success all these years. Though briefly on Elektra nearly a decade ago for the release of 1998's A Series of Sneaks, Spoon is an indie band who has largely financed its records and released most of them on Merge. In other words, they've enjoyed all the advantages that being only kinda famous affords.
Spoon, The New Pornographers and Emma Pollack perform Friday, November 2, at House of Blues.
"I think maybe being only somewhat successful makes you, well, it can affect everyone differently," singer and guitarist Britt Daniel says from a hotel in Minneapolis. "The way I hope it affects us is that it gives us a feeling of self-confidence, which hopefully will translate into doing riskier things, instead of just trying to keep the same audience." Risk for a band such as Spoon—who never quite break the rules—comes in the form of tinkering with pop traditions by way of reduction and enhancement with a dizzying arsenal of delightful flourishes, all applied with a perfectionist's attention to detail. Instruments—in this case, horns, shakers, synths, tambourines—drop in and out with such careful precision that you can't help but imagine Daniel at the helm of an orchestra, motioning and signaling each instrument for its entrance. It's highly self-conscious pop, and it rarely abandons its restraint for outright rocking, at least not without reeling it back in immediately. But that offers its own kind of pleasure.
Take standout track "The Underdog," which has rightfully elicited Van Morrison and Billy Joel comparisons. (Its strummy acoustic shuffle and shimmying horns feel ready to waltz right into "Only the Good Die Young" at any moment.) The song teases with quiet-loud dynamics, and the tight clicks and handclaps build forcefully as the horns swell. Daniel's world-weary reproach nearly turns to anger, and the exclamatory line, "You've got no fear of the underdog/That's why you will not survive/Right!" becomes more aggravated until the whole thing nearly explodes. Nearly is the operative word, though, because despite the cacophonous clatter at the song's end, the intensity is offset by pleasant falsetto ooohs and ahhhs and an otherwise sunny disposition, giving the song the feeling of almost breaking loose into utter mayhem.
And the audience has grown alongside the band: their first record, Telephono, sold 3,000 copies, while Gimme Fiction sold 160,000. "We mostly just feel it getting bigger," says Daniel of their fan base. "For so long, we did this without anyone giving a damn and without any positive reinforcement. I remember at one point two or three years ago there seemed to be a lot of younger girls coming to shows, which was kinda weird. Well, weird but good—I'm not going to shoo them away from the show. [Laughs.] I haven't felt that as much lately."
Only lately, Spoon has been showing up on late-night TV and on SNL and appearing regularly at music festivals, and Daniel composed music for the movie Stranger Than Fiction. Ga Ga leaked a few months early, and the ensuing buzz led to a No. 10 debut on the Billboard 200. Says Daniel of the frequency of record leaks these days: "It's not bad unless you make a bad record." Spoon hasn't made a bad record yet, and Ga Ga is full of tightly controlled, messy perfection. "Finer Feelings" is a thrill of a track propelled by delirium: a shuffly beat, a wobbly bassline, a rash of handclaps and shakers, and a guitar riff that squiggles in and out mischievously. But this is pop with an itch to scratch. Daniel is still fond of slurring his generally dark, gravelly vocals—in "Finer Feelings," the line "I was dreamin' in the driver's seat/When the right words just came to me/And all my finer feelings came up" sounds as if sung through an adorably stuffed-up nose, and it softens the track's terseness considerably. Elsewhere, songs such as "Don't You Evah" feature studio talkback left on tape, a fuzz of feedback and barely audible yelps. It's evidence of Daniel's treatment of mistakes as happy accidents. "A lot of the charm of records made in the '60s is that there are mistakes on those records, like really quick mixes where something's mixed too high. You can hear people talking or getting ready to play something, and all that stuff adds up to a feel on a record that feels really significant. We don't record live, but if something happens that wasn't intended, it doesn't mean we should get rid of it. We try to look at those things and turn them around."
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