May 13, 2005

Spoon loses some shine, but retains subtlety and resonance on latest album

I doubt that anyone has ever been blown away by Spoon upon a first listen. That's not the way Spoon operates. Since they began playing in the mid-'90s, Spoon has evolved its sound in many ways, but its secret weapon has always been subtlety. Even 1998's Series of Sneaks, ostensibly straight-ahead Pixies indie guitar rock with a (perhaps feigned) sneering attitude, reveals an intricate manipulation of the rhythms lurking between sound and space that became one of Spoon's calling cards. With its next two LPs, Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight, Spoon expanded its sound to incorporate an ever-increasing number of sophisticated production touches and frills that never overshadowed the bare excellence of Britt Daniel's songs. Pleasant but somewhat boring at first glance, these albums revealed their magic slowly, but once they had you, there was no going back. When Kill the Moonlight first came out in 2002 it got solid reviews, but it took a few years for the majority of listeners to really appreciate just how uniquely successful Spoon was at forging a sound that reconciled all the contradictions: immediate/understated, traditional/experimental, strange/familiar, and, most importantly, catchy/lasting. What could the band possibly do for an encore?

Spoon's latest album, Gimme Fiction, has finally been released to ride the swelling tide of anticipation and appreciation it has garnered. Is it the breakthrough knockout that's going to push them into the stratosphere? Well, no. But Spoon has never been keen on mainstream success, so that's not a problem. No, the only problem is that after two risk-taking albums that wound up nearly perfect, Gimme Fiction is something of a disappointment. However, this should be taken with a ten-ton grain of salt because Gimme Fiction is still a great album. Anything released by Spoon is worth listening to, but Gimme Fiction doesn't even need this tired cliché to rest its legitimacy, as it can stand on its own as a solid chapter in the ongoing Spoon saga.

The standard critical line on Gimme Fiction seems to be that it is Spoon's most "polished" and "meticulous" album yet. While this would fit aptly with the arc of Spoon's story, to my ears it is not true. Unless they've been burying tracks below the level of conscious listening (which I wouldn't put past Britt), Gimme Fiction actually comes across as more spare than Kill the Moonlight. The little riffs and hooks utilized to enhance the songs on previous albums are here more atmospheric and ephemeral, leaving Britt's songwriting and Jim Eno's percussion work alternately to shine or to underwhelm depending on the song.

The opener, "The Beast and Dragon Adored," is quite a curtain-raiser, with its slow-burning groove over a tension-building walking piano line. The chorus, when finally reached, cuts through with some surprisingly raw, emotional singing that is quite reminiscent of John Lennon and deals with rock 'n' roll, of all things. Name-checking a few of the yet to come songs, Britt Daniel begins Gimme Fiction with this beautifully oblique but impassioned paean to the sprit of rock and manages to make it completely cool.

Besides a few other tracks, most of Gimme Fiction isn't as immediately visceral. Spoon's excellence at building rarely released tension is instead the predominant factor in most of the music. Like the sparse restraint of the recording, this attribute of Gimme Fiction leads to mixed results. The tracks that come through as the biggest winners in this regard are "My Mathematical Mind" and "They Never Got You." They take a while to grow on you but the former's smoky soul-groove and the latter's winding melody and insistently swinging beat are mesmerizing and chock full of clever little supporting musical bits.

Unfortunately, Spoon's other forays into repetitive grooves aren't as exciting. On "The Delicate Place" and "Merchants of Soul," one cannot help but feeling that Spoon is re-treading the same ground. Much of Spoon's best work has always been subtle enough to appear somewhat boring at first, but while both of these songs are technically catchy and clever, the production seems to leave them lacking life. However, anything is preferable to "Was It You?," the nadir of the album. It's awesomely trancey and spooky but ends up seeming longer than its 5:02 length would suggest.

Gimme Fiction's other tracks are more diverse in style and all essential to the album's greatness. "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" conjures the vibe of mid-'60s Beatles with three minutes of irresistible, well-written string-enhanced pop wedded with perfectly evocative lyrics. Following it is "I Turn My Camera," which takes Spoon's trademark minimalism to a whole new level. Instrumentally, it is little more than a straight 4/4 bassline up and down the first three notes of a minor scale. However, Britt fulfils the dreams of Spoon fans everywhere (or at least mine) by layering multiple criss-crossing falsettos over the top. It's danceable and very sexy.

"Sister Jack" and "I Summon You" are also next to each other in the track listing, but I think what really connects them is their lack of distance and coolness that predominates most of Gimme Fiction. "Sister Jack," even with its confusing mixing and harmonies, is an extremely extroverted jangly power-pop song—complete with hand claps—that conveys a sense of nostalgia and longing despite its goofy lyrics. The same emotions carry over to "I Summon You," which is more lyrically straightforward. It's refreshing to hear the warmth of the strumming acoustic guitar and Britt's yearning vocals.

All said, Gimme Fiction does not surpass Spoon's last three albums, but it is solid and contains a handful of classic songs. Gimme Fiction's experimental dedication to extreme subtlety and restraint probably accounts for the hit-and-miss feel of the album as a whole. The cohesion present in Kill the Moonlight is absent, resulting in an inevitably disappointing first impression. However, Gimme Fiction has enough of Spoon's inimitable songcraft and sound to be ultimately reassuring and fun.