Thursday, February 18, 2010

ROUGH DRAFT: SPOON’S TRANSFERENCE


When I was doing A&R late in the previous century, a musician in one of my bands—it might have been Jolene guitarist Dave Burris—expressed a then-popular theory about when to stop working on a piece. There’s an inherent danger in the act of refining a track, he asserted, because its initial vitality is frequently lost in the quest for perfection. The same danger exists in critical writing, he added; we were talking about a review I was working on at the time. I’ve thought of this notion often over the ensuing years while polishing reviews and features, especially when pruning copy to get it down to the called-for word count.

I was most recently reminded of it just the other day while rereading my 650-word Uncut review of Spoon’s latest LP after playing the record more obsessively than anything I’ve fallen in love with since Radiohead’s In Rainbows, an album that I kept unpeeling like an onion, just as I’m doing now with Transference. And watching footage on YouTube of Spoon’s withering KCRW mini-set has only served to deepen the feeling that there was so much more I could’ve said about the band and the record. Then I remembered that I had said quite a bit more in the first draft of the review, which was roughly twice the length of the published version. Reading over the first draft just minutes ago, I was gratified to find I’d nailed what now seems to me to be special about the album during my initial listening experience back in early November – despite the fact that all I had to go on was a 128 kbps stream. Which goes to show you that a great record is gonna sound great no matter the degree of accuracy in which it’s delivered or what kind of speakers you’re hearing it through. So here’s the undoctored draft. It seems fitting that I put it out there in this non-tweaked form considering so much of Transference is built on Britt’s original demos.

Spoon
Transference

(Merge U.S., Anti- U.K.)

“This one is pure Spoon,” offered Britt Daniel, auteur of the veteran indie band, describing his seventh album on spoontheband.com. “For better and worse and all of it.” Taking Daniel at his word, we have no choice but to examine Transference, while comparing the LP to its predecessors, in order to locate its quintessential Spoon-ness.

Temple, Texas, native Daniel formed the band in Austin with drummer Jim Eno in 1994, scuffling along for six years and releasing a pair of unexceptional albums before the partners hit upon the sound that would carry them through the decade, generating one of the noughties’ most distinctive bodies of work, while drawing a loyal constituency as ready for anything as Wilco’s.

“The only epiphany I ever had was between A Series of Sneaks and Girls Can Tell,” Daniel told me during a 2005 interview for a Paste feature. “I realized there were no rules that I should play by. I felt like we no longer had to limit ourselves to being guitar, bass and drums kind of band. I started thinking to myself, ‘Do my favorite records play by those rules? Does What’s Going On play by those rules? There are all these great styles of music that I appreciate, and I don’t feel like I’m really taking advantage of everything I could—every instrument or arrangement idea—by sticking to just guitar/bass/drums rock songs.’ That opened the door to a lot of things.”

The eureka moment occurred on “Everything Hits At Once,” the opening track of 2000’s Girls Can Tell, instantly drawing up the blueprint for the mature Spoon sound: spare, propulsive, brainy, obsessively detailed, self-effacing and progressively insinuating. They eliminated anything not essential to the movement and character of a track, doing so with a conceptual purposefulness as rigorous as Radiohead’s. Daniel and Eno perfected that sound two years later on the masterfully distilled Kill the Moonlight, with its stripped-down, amped-up Beatle-isms, following it in 2005 with the more expansive Gimme Fiction, paced by the Prince-meets-“Emotional Rescue” refracted soul of “I Turn My Camera On” and the intimated grandeur of “My Mathematical Mind.” Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the band’s U.S. commercial breakthrough, was Spoon’s most unremittingly infectious set, powered by three of the band’s most immediately accessible tunes: the Jon Brion-produced single “The Underdog,” the hooky “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” and the finger-snapping “Don’t You Evah.”

The basis of Spoon’s blueprint is the groove, set down by Eno’s massive, Bonham-like snare hits and Charlie Watts-style behind-the-beat momentum, the feel ineffably human yet so utterly precise that you’d think it must be machine-made. It isn’t just the drums—there’s no part on any Spoon record without some essential rhythmic component, notably, Daniel’s staccato guitar riffage, percussive piano runs and in-your-face tambourine and handclap accents. On top of all this bounce, Daniel unreels lyrics littered with Dylanesque non-sequiturs and sly humor, delivered with a deadpan offhandedness punctuated by bursts of overt emotion, as he speaks for the fucked-over in life and in love, the disenfranchised, the underdogs.

Spartan in its sparseness, impeccably crafted, monochromatic, desert-dry in both tone and attitude, Transference eschews conventional verse/chorus/bridge song structure altogether; instead, the band establishes a musical premise and rides it for all it’s worth, like a souped-up roadster racing along an arrow-straight ribbon of highway toward the horizon. The songs seem to blaze past, like the two-minute eruptions of Please Please Me, but only two of the 11 tracks are under three minutes, though only one exceeds five. There’s not a wasted note anywhere—something the band’s rabid fans have some to expect as a given—as Spoon spits out analog sonics with binary efficiency.

True to form, the opening “Before Destruction” functions as both a palate cleanser and a preview of what is about to transpire. It seems as if we’re eavesdropping on Daniel, sitting alone in a room, singing as if to himself and strumming an acoustic, but the arrangement soon turns exotic as a chorale of overdubbed and treated voices floats in, with an ambient electronic drone lurking in the background. “Is Love Forever?,” which follows, turns on Spoon’s signature rhythmic starkness, the spaces between sounds as palpable as the sounds themselves, but here the drums are chopped and channeled. Spoon’s go-to percussion instrument, the tambourine, enters, but only for a few bars. From there it’s just a naked chord progression with another electric keyboard barely there, as Daniel asks, perched uncertainly between guilelessness and cynicism, “Is love forever?/Are you quite certain, love?”

The textural and thematic building blocks having been laid out, the band begins to stack them up with “The Mystery Zone,” a tension builder with Revolver­-like lysergic keyboard/string accents and a percolating beat. Now, this is quintessential Spoon: Beatles + Prince. The eerie “Who Makes Your Money” features burbling keyboard chords over a drum loop; hooking you when it kicks into double time in mid-song behind a staccato rhythm guitar run through Euro-synth bleats. That sets up “Written in Reverse,” the band’s biggest-scaled track since “My Mathematical Mind,” as a brief lounge piano intro opens into squalling guitar, tinkling piano, cable-thick bassline and the anxious repeated line, “It’s all I know/it’s all I know.” The track ratchets up to unbearable intensity behind a ferocious one-note solo that recalls Dr. Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson. They keep things heated up with the epic “I Saw the Light,” an epic with a lemon-tart melodic progression. An abrupt shift into a robot drum stomp signals the transition into a lengthy instrumental section that is one of the album’s most captivating segments, as a gorgeous piano passage is assaulted by a sheet-metal guitar solo, only to drop away into what sounds like a cue from a French movie score.

The album’s fiercely sustained tension, a relentless push/pull between Eno’s pummeling back-beats and Daniel’s forward-leaning guitar lines and vocal spurts, suddenly dissipates two-thirds of the way through, as the clatter of “Trouble Comes Running,” boasting trash-can cymbals and guitar overtones that will slice the top of your head off, cedes the foreground to the drum-less, muted piano ballad “Goodnight Laura,” its apparent antecedent “I’m in Love With a Girl” from Big Star’s Radio City. Here, without warning, Daniel turns unexpectedly unguarded, nary a trace of irony or distance in his vocal—it’s the biggest surprise on the record. The sense of tenderness continues with “Out Go the Lights,” its tone ghostly and panoramic, like Captain Beefheart’s “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains,” Daniel’s voice Lennon-esque in its clutched understatement, achieving a lump-in-the-throat poignancy without descending into mere sentiment.

The dry heat returns with “Got Nuffin,” a dusky, percussive rocker about darkness and shadows with a trampolining Leslie guitar riff nagged by the incessant plink-plink of a piano. If U2 did something like this, they’d restore their cred in the space of four minutes. Finally, on the closing “Nobody Gets Me but You,” super-compressed drums reference “I Turn My Camera On,” while Daniel bites off a lyric that could serve as a love letter to the band’s fans. “Nobody gets me but you,” he sings in that unmistakable rasp, “No one gets what I’m doin’.” Over string-like accents, the tone turns urgent, and Daniel lands a few well-timed jabs before the groove takes over, as they end the album perched between 1966 and 2012.

Daniel and Eno worked without a producer for the first time in search of the aforementioned “pure Spoon,” and this is the challenging, take-no-prisoners result, an audacious fusion of the reliable and the experimental – a record that gets the new decade off to an audacious start.


Q&A: Britt Daniel

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was loaded with relatively conventional, overtly hooky pop songs, whereas this album is stripped to the bone.
With each record you react to the one before, and the songs on this record are constructed in a different way. For instance, “The Underdog” has a zillion chords and a ton of different parts; same thing for “Don’t Make Me a Target.” A lot of songs on this record ended up having very few chords; it was more about setting something up, getting in a mood and sticking with it. There’s something real hardcore about playing one chord or one riff for four minutes. It’s just a different kind of good, and I wanted to see if we could do that kind of good.

But why mess with a winning formula?
More than anything, I just wanted to push myself. This is our seventh record, and at some point you’ve gotta stop thinking about topping yourself and go in a different direction. If you keep trying to make the same record and topping yourself, you’ll lose your mind. That kind of thinking is why Brian Wilson lost his mind.

In that sense, was the idea of you and Jim working without a producer another way of reshuffling the cards?
It was also a way of staying absolutely hardcore to what feels right first to us. Good things come from working with a producer too, because you’ve got two different aesthetics that you’re trying to please, and when you’re both happy, that’s what ends up being on the record. That’s a great way to work, but I wanted to try it where we’re pleasing only ourselves, not having to think about anybody else in considering the fidelity, structure, production style, what kind of instruments are used. Just hardcore what we want – hardcore Spoon.

You’ve gone away from the piano, which has been big part of your sound since Kill the Moonlight. This album is full of angular, Wire-y guitar. What was behind that? I wanted it to be a more angular, new wave, weirder record.

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