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Soft Effects EP/Telephono

(Merge Records; US: 23 Apr 1996; UK: 31 Jul 2006)

Indie rock's most polished practictioners dust off their rougher, early work.

The first Spoon album I ever bought was Girls Can Tell—and the reason I purchased it was simple.  A CMJ reviewer had appended two RIYLs to the bottom of his copy:  Elvis Costello and the Pixies.  To a certain kind of music lover, that’s like saying, “Hey, if you like the Father and the Son, we’ve got this Holy Ghost character you’re really going to dig.”  So the credit card came out, the Amazon site was one-clicked and the rest is history.  Spoon became one of my very favorite bands. 

Still, as I listened to the clever, pop-oriented Girls Can Tell, I found that while it was easy to make the Costello connection, the link to the Pixies was less direct.  Turns out I was just late to the party.  Spoon’s first two albums, and particularly its first Telephono, show the band’s post-punk DNA quite clearly, not just the Pixies but Wire, the Wipers, and Gang of Four. 

Telephono, originally released in April of 1996, represents the band’s very first recorded output, an adrenaline-fueled rush of hard-strummed chords and minimalist rhythms.  Simple, throbbing bass lines, sudden shifts from harmonized verse to screaming chorus, a certain surrealism all bear witness to the band’s Pixies fetish.  “Nefarious” seems lifted almost whole from that band’s “Gigantic”, and opener “Don’t Buy the Realistic”, once its open furze of feedback has passed, mimicks Kim Deal’s what-are-all-these-other-strings-for? low-end pulse.  Still, even at this stage, Britt Daniel is a better singer than Frank Black.  His voice, hoarse and sexy and ruinously melodic, sets “Cvantez”‘s slinky verse on fire, and his whispered seduction in “Dismember” hints at the soulfulness of Girls Can Tell.  There’s a blend of pop and post-punk on these cuts that might remind you of another Pixies-influenced outfit, The Wrens, and it’s a signal that a very promising band has just started to slip free of its influences.

Released less than a year later, Soft Effects represents a giant step forward and a much fuller realization of the band’s sound.  Now, you can hear all the elements that define later Spoon, the jangling stop-start guitars, the upright, new-wavish four-four strut, the smoky croon and sudden yelp of Daniel’s voice.  Opener “Waiting for the Kid to Come Out” is as coiled and rhythmically tense as last year’s “I Summon You”, while “I Could See the Dude”, is a slow-driving, luminous bit of indie jam, enlivened by chance shards of tremolo’d guitars.  “Get Out of the State” buzzes and menaces then breaks for Daniel’s murmur-in-your-ear sighs, a blend of density and space that presages Kill the Moonlight‘s disciplined sound.  And “Loss Leaders” is the kind of beautiful, seemingly simple, but inevitable indie-rock anthem that Daniels slips in at a rate of about one per album (“Jonathan Fisk”, “Sister Jack”), its haunting chorus “Shalome, shalome” as wistful and melodic and memorable as power pop can be. 

The two albums have long been out of print, expensive and hard to get, so Merge’s combined reissue is particularly welcome for late-coming Spoon fans.  There’s not much extra material—just a video of “Turning Off”—so if you’ve already got one or both albums, it may not be worth the purchase.  If you don’t, though, both records are fascinating as an early history of a great band… and totally enjoyable on their own terms.


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