Into the Light
For a long time, Austin-based Spoon was considered one of the most underrated, underappreciated bands working. There are many theories as to what brought about that sorry state of affairs: label neglect, lack of opportunity in a city that brags about its music scene, and the band's failure to write music it truly felt were all cited as possible culprits. In truth, it was most likely a combination of all three that kept Spoon submerged beneath the radar.
But it's also a moot point at this stage in the game. Having just released the excellent Kill the Moonlight -- a followup to the breakthrough album Girls Can Tell -- Spoon has found its sweet spot. The band's second release for Merge Records, Kill the Moonlight has done much to solidify notions that said obscurity was a critical -- if not quite criminal -- oversight.
"I guess we are somewhat underrated," singer, guitarist and primary songwriter Britt Daniel demurs, "but it seems like a lot more people have gotten into us in the past year or two. Ever since Girls Can Tell came out, things have been a lot easier." He credits the shift to the quality of Spoon's most recent records -- as well as the indie cachet that comes with being abused by a big, bad label and living to tell the tale. "I think there was sort of a story about the band -- and I think that we had been around long enough that people had gradually, gradually found out about us."
Spoon's trajectory was gradual, indeed. Not too long after Daniel graduated from the University of Texas, he formed the band with his longtime collaborator, drummer Jim Eno, with whom he'd played in a little-known, short-lived outfit called the Alien Beats. Backed by the first in a line of rotating bassists eventually lost to the dustbin of history, Eno and Daniel released Telephono -- a jagged, punky affair that regularly drew comparisons to the Pixies -- on Matador in 1996. The strength of that release caught the attention of Elektra A&R rep Ron Laffitte, who signed Spoon to the label. That should have been good news, but the deal would eventually trigger a major setback for the band.
In 1998, the imprint released Spoon's critically lauded A Series of Sneaks, an album that boasted even more post-punk goodness and Daniel's then-trademark oblique and elusive lyrics. But soon after the disc's release, Laffitte's relationship with the band soured. He was later fired, essentially severing the band's ties to company brass at "Neglectra." Sneaks wasn't exactly tearing up the charts, and label suits glad-handed the band, promising tour support and continued PR while simultaneously sharpening the ax that would end the short-lived partnership.
Not long after their rep's termination, Spoon independently released Daniel's bitterly elegiac song "The Agony of Laffitte" as a seven-inch. In it, Daniel makes clear his feelings about the man who was the catalyst for Spoon's fall: "It's like I knew two of you, man/The one before and after we shook hands/Taking the calls but in all forgetting what's been said." His is the voice of someone truly heartbroken, whose illusions about the ways of the biz have taken a thrashing. As a distraught Daniel told the Austin Chronicle at the time, "I don't look at it as a learning experience. I look at it as unfortunate."
Still, Spoon continued making music. After self-releasing a number of singles, the band had completed most of the tracks for what would be its breakthrough record, Girls Can Tell. The only problem was, it had no label on which to release it. After dispatching two rounds of demos to imprints hither and yon, Spoon finally got a bite from Merge, the Chapel Hill-based endeavor founded by Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan; Merge has practically built its reputation around snapping up extremely talented bands who have been screwed by the Man. (Merge also scooped up the Radar Brothers and Imperial Teen when those bands were set adrift by their respective parent companies.)
Girls was markedly different from Spoon's previous output: The snarly, aggro riffs and growls were replaced with smart, polished pop that exhibited Daniel's ear for a hook that wasn't cheesy, as well as his newly discovered talent for writing more open and honest lyrics. Gone were the oblique couplets that peppered A Series of Sneaks ("It's unelectrical a bad sharing one/It's on American radio and dedicated c'mon!" he sang on that album's "30 Gallon Tank"). In their place were vignettes like "Fitted Shirt," a love letter to Daniel's father: "They'll start to make/Shirts that fit right/Till then I suppose/I still got Dad's clothes/And that's all right."
"We just wanted to keep it interesting for ourselves," says Daniel. "My favorite bands are the ones where you put on a record and you sort of sit there, amazed at what's happening, either because their songs are so great, or sonically, there are things happening that are surprising you, that you haven't heard before. With that goal in mind, we make records. I don't think I'd be particularly jazzed by making another record that was just guitar, bass and drums."
This subtle alteration to its approach opened Spoon up to a wider audience. The record ended up on many critics' year-end best-of lists in 2001. More and more crowds started showing up at gigs, the buzz grew louder and louder -- and Daniel started having a ball.
"When Girls Can Tell came out, it did well for us, and I thought, 'This is fun. Let's do this again,'" he says.
In an effort to do just that, he hunkered down in a house in Connecticut and threw his entire existence into cranking out a batch of songs; the new material would make up Kill the Moonlight."I knew we wouldn't be able to put out a record this year if I didn't go away to get some songwriting done seriously, because it can take me a long time to get songs ready to record," he explains. "So I went out there where I didn't know anybody, and I didn't go out at all. I ended up working on songs eight hours a day, and that got things moving a lot faster than if I had just stayed in Austin."
That ascetic atmosphere led to some deeply personal-feeling songwriting. Kill the Moonlight -- which, true to Spoon form, features no fewer than three bassists in the credits -- starts out with "Small Stakes," Daniel's position paper on the music industry in which he claims "I don't dig the Stripes but I go for Har Mar." (Har Mar Superstar is a Ron Jeremy look-alike who channels Prince while breakdancing in his Fruit of the Looms on stage, quite the contrasting image next to the oh-so-earnest Jack and Meg White.)
The differences between Kill the Moonlight and Girls Can Tell are evident straight away. In "Small Stakes," which is the opening track, Daniel's voice is thick with reverb effects, and the keyboard is mixed front and center. The tension between the vocals and the guitarless instrumentation is curious but strangely catchy. Daniel's wry wit ("The Way We Get By") and bald sentimentalism mingle with beautiful, emotive instrumentals ("Vittorio E."). Everyone's favorite -- beatboxing -- is even featured on one of the most fun songs on the record, "Stay Don't Go." On it, Daniel cops a sexy falsetto and sings over a looped recording of his own organic drum-machine sounds. (The tune's production will make live replication a bit of a challenge, one reckons, but the song is too goofy-cool to leave at home.)
Looking back over the past decade or so of Austin music, one can plot Spoon's ascension from just another name on a club flier to the band that everyone flocks to see during the now-rare local gig. Austin earned its chamber-of-commerce-engineered slogan, "The Live Music Capital of the World," because it was flooded with bands trying to make it. In reality, many of those artists must play seven or eight gigs a week just to keep a roof over their heads and food (or beer) in their bellies. Spoon has been a constant in the verdant river city where many musical dreams wither and die, and the band's consistent presence is what has secured its hometown cred.
"With us, it's been a gradual thing where we've been respected just for sticking around -- or maybe because we're better now," Daniel muses. "I like to think it's because we made two really good records."
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