On Spoon

On Spoon
Written by Mike Parish and Dan Tarnowski, Collage by Dan Tarnowski

Spoon is a weird band. Despite being around for so many years and also the fact that Spoon happens to be a good indie rock band, (perhaps the epitome), asking anyone what they think about Spoon yields one of two responses: Spoon is uneven or Spoon sucks. Following a conversation as to the possible reasons why, this article offers two responses to Spoon’s music, one penned by Dan and one by Mike.

Dan Discusses Albums Telephono (1999) through Gimme Fiction (2005)

I’ve been listening to the Spoon stuff I have, which spans from 1996 to 2005. I think part of what makes them seem so uneven/difficult to grasp is the fact that they’ve been around for a long time, and they didn’t achieve notoriety until they were making their later material, which can be somewhat strange and experimental. Add to this the fact that they’ve always been an ambitious band, willing to try anything with their songs.

The album Girls Can Tell (2001) seems to be the turning point in their career. Before 2001 they made lively, stylish rock similar to Sonic Youth. I actually really like their early sound. The vocals have more attitude, often featuring staccato “ooh”s at climactic moments, the production is rougher and louder, and there’s a lot of unexpected lyrics and chord changes.

Their second album A Series of Sneaks (1998) is good, too, and seems to sum up their whole career: sometimes weird and difficult, sometimes hooky and anthemic. The album contains a few puzzling songs, but also some of Spoon’s most straightforward rock. The production on Sneaks is top-notch, filled with vintage guitar crunch and tight drums, an exciting sound with no gloss. A Series of Sneaks is an interesting listen, comparable in sound to The Strokes, Nirvana and The Constantines, but may fit in too well with those bands. Spoon later found a more unique sound.

On Girls Can Tell, Spoon began the more laid back style we’re familiar with, characterized by layered tambourine hits and hand claps, smoother vocals, and a general crispness. I’ve only listened to Girls a few times, but the overall song structures and guitar lines seem more fluid than later stuff. This album also has a swanky lounge feel that isn’t as pronounced on later albums.

2002’s Kill The Moonlight both builds upon and simplifies Spoon’s sound. Some songs feature weird vocal effects, warped strings, reversed sounds and intermittent stabs of buzzing guitar, others feature little more than piano, bass and vocals. The rigid, propulsive beats recall 1970’s kraut rock, as does the overall level of minimalism. This album features “The Way We Get By,” arguably Spoon’s most universal song, a kind of updated “With a Little Help From My Friends” for the 2000’s.

Even now as I try to make sense of Spoon’s oeuvre, it seems full of contradictions. Spoon has always experimented with a variety of styles and textures while generally sounding the same. Some songs on Gimme Fiction (2005), for example, have a really tight, almost processed sound, and some have odder, more baroque arrangements like the Beatles.

Spoon has always displayed a heavy amount of Beatles worship. “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” from 2005‘s Gimme Fiction seems to take it’s cues from John Lennon’s solo work but comes across as a bit forced and sedated. It’s the type of song that can turn off fans and non-fans alike, and stands in contrast to immediately delectable songs like “Sister Jack,” a freewheeling Wilco-esque tune with bittersweet melodies and clever lyrics, or “I Turn My Camera On,” an ultra-tight slice of disco-rock that sounds like 1980’s Queen. I’m not sure what Spoon’s recipe is, but sometimes it breeds disaster, sometimes genius.

I haven’t even mentioned the band’s two most recent albums, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Transference, albums some consider their best work and some their most inscrutable. Either way, the albums have made Spoon a well-respected band, and I wonder if they’re on their way to a masterpiece or if they’ve already made one.

Dan’s Top Spoon Tracks (Download Medley)

1. “Nefarious” Telephono – This song off Spoon’s first album is a good example of their early sound. I’m taken with the more baritone vocals, the yelps, and the sloppy/awesome lead guitar noodling.

2. “Me and the Bean” Girls Can Tell – Dark, moody, oozing in coolness, this an awesome cut from 2001’s Girls Can Tell.

3. “Paper Tiger” Kill The Moonlight – No drums, just stick clicks to keep time. A simple organ part, weird, reversed effects, and a tight, almost dubby bassline. Spoon makes it all sound natural.

4. “Sister Jack” Gimme Fiction – They simply let the chords rip in this bouncy, bittersweet song. Featuring a bit of a Brit-Pop sound, a style Spoon does well, this song and the next one prove Spoon to write some of the most sublime chord progressions around.

5. “I Summon You” Gimme Fiction – An all-around beautiful song that can be enjoyed by Dads and Little Sisters alike.

Mike Discusses Albums Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007) and Transference (2010)

Spoon’s strongest trait is that they consistently put out great Spoon albums, just like a band like the Sea and Cake consistently puts out great Sea and Cake albums. When you put on a Spoon record, you know what you’re getting yourself into: solidly crafted songs and creative songwriting that sometimes takes off in familiar yet unexpected directions, always with a few songs thrown in with seemingly no direction at all. “The Ghost of You Lingers,” the second track on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007), is probably the best example of a Spoon song with no direction. How did this song make it onto the album, arguably Spoon’s best album, in a spot where it could turn off the less patient listener and leave the more patient listener frustrated? Is some trick being attempted, to pass “The Ghost of You Lingers” off as a complete idea? At best, it’s a half song, an idea that hasn’t yet found the ideas that make it whole.

Maybe the same holds true for Britt Daniel, Spoon’s singer/songwriter; though drummer Jim Eno has always been Daniel’s stalwart, maybe what leads to Spoon’s unevenness is a lack of additional, consistent personnel, personnel which when coupled with Daniel’s songwriting, acts synergistically and as a force of checks and balances.

Spoon’s latest, Transference (2010), brings Spoon into somewhat new and exciting territory, while of course, retaining and bringing along a lot of the old. On first listen, Transference is not as immediately likable as Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, certain tracks stick out and make themselves clear, (“Written in Reverse”) while others have abrupt shifts and endings that can be jarring, (“The Mystery Zone,” “I Saw the Light”). Some of the production choices Spoon makes on this album leave the listener to wonder, did they mean to do that, and if so, why? After playing the album through a few times and thinking about Spoon’s discography as a whole the question becomes: have they always included incomplete songs purposely, trying to pass them off as some kind of art, as a form of experimentation? If they’re capable of writing so many killer songs throughout the course of their career, why have they yet to release an album strictly filled to the brim with them? Why have they yet to cut loose the jetsam? Where is their masterpiece?

Spoon has always left the listener with a lot to think about in terms of their song structures, song lyrics, who Britt Daniel is as a person and their production choices; it’s all a part of who/what Spoon is. But if you’re looking for answers, especially one in the form of an even album, it might be a long time before you find it listening to Spoon.

Mike’s Top Spoon Tracks (Download Medley)

“I Turn My Camera On” Gimme Fiction – Ouch. One of my favorite Spoon songs. I feel like the song is caught between having a sense of urgency while maintaining a laid back attitude.

“You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Killer production. Nothing seems out of place on this one, a nice blend of 60’s/70‘s funk/soul sounds (horn section, tambourine + reverb, vibraphone) with the guitar chugging/piano clanking/drum driven pop that Spoon claims its territory in.

“The Underdog” Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Once again, killer production. Uses the idea of the horn section in a bit different style than the above; the song is a Kinks-esque jam, that feels like it is heading somewhere and you want to know the exact coordinates.

“Written in Reverse” Transference – One of Spoon’s best songs to date. Get the headphones on and turn it up.

“Goodnight Laura” Transference – Daniel’s voice on this one seems closest to what his normal singing voice would/should be without all of his strain and gravel. While the strain/gravel technique is interesting and adds to Britt’s character as a singer, I like the guy’s voice when he’s simply singing, too.

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