13 Nov 2001: The Middle East Cambridge, Massachusetts
Spoon Dishes Out Solid Performance; Utensil Puns, However, Remain Tough to Come By
I’m going to write about Spoon without referencing the Pixies or problems with record labels, which seem to be topics that dominate the typical Spoon article.
After all, Spoon are not the first band to be influenced by the Pixies, (though, they’re probably their finest disciples), or the first to get dropped by a major label, (where they are in a first-rate union of artists who have been callously shown their walking papers—in this case, by Elektra). In fact, they are not even alone in putting their frustrations to vinyl. On the brilliantly titled and darkly humorous two-sided single that they released as a testament to their label dissatisfaction, “The Agony of Lafitte” backed with “Lafitte Don’t Fail Me Now”, Spoon delivered a fitting retaliatory ode to their former A&R representative, Ron Lafitte, who after a long courtship of the band, abandoned them shortly after their sole Elektra LP, A Series of Sneaks, was released. (What is it about Elektra that inspires such musical vengeance? See The Afghan Whigs’ “Neglekted” or Superdrag’s “Keep It Close to Me” for more on this topic.)
So, excluding the aforementioned references, you will read nothing more regarding worship of Doolittle or major label miseries.
Which brings us up to this year, where Spoon reemerged with their widely-acclaimed third full-length release, Girls Can Tell on Merge Records, which incidentally finds them with a considerably revamped sound. If absolutely pressed to make a comparison, I would say that Spoon’s new material sounds more like a young Elvis Costello if he recorded for Motown rather than well you know whom. But the fact is that their new material sounds like everyone and no one at the same time. Spoon sound like a band comfortable in their own skin. And perhaps, the reason that some critics unfairly dismissed Spoon as knock-offs earlier in their career was due to shortsightedness by those same critics. After all, the easiest way to describe a band’s sound is to simply compare them to another artist who they most resemble.
So having never had the opportunity to see the band perform, I anxiously awaited their Tuesday night show at The Middle East. Spoon’s current tour is taking them to numerous locales on the East Coast, serving as the opening act for the popular band Cake on most dates. However, on this night they were stepping out on their own.
After a sonically pleasing (but under-amplified) set of melancholy Americana-pop by The Skating Party, Spoon took to the stage. The Austin, Texas-based quartet consists of original members Britt Daniel (also the principal songwriter in the band) on lead vocals/guitar and drummer Jim Eno, along with touring members Roman Kuebler on bass and Eric Friend on keyboards. The first thing that you can’t help but notice is that Daniel is wearing a coat as in a sportcoat, which is pretty rare in indie-rockdom. If you listen to the lyrics in “The Fitted Shirt” from Girls (which, incidentally, was a show highlight), he sings about how when he was growing up, his Dad would “put a coat and tie on” when he went to work. Wearing the jacket almost seems to be Daniel’s acknowledgement that, well, he’s going to work, and he appears to take his job seriously—just as one in corporate America would wear a jacket to an important meeting—but not too seriously. After all, this is rock ‘n’ roll—not the boardroom.
Despite the no-nonsense appearance of Daniel, this is a band that is clearly having fun as they continue to sharpen their tools. On new songs such as “Take a Walk” and “Lines In the Suit”, which appeared early in their set, Spoon have become the band that you want to play at your New Year’s Eve house party or college reunion or whatever. And if you still weren’t sure that they were having fun, by the time they got to “30 Gallon Tank”, the look of sheer delight on Friend’s face as he broke out the maracas in the middle of the song erased any potential doubt from anyone in the audience. (Come on who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play the maracas at a rock show?) And the simple but irresistible keyboard riff from “Anything You Want”, which gets my vote for best breakup song of the year, actually got a few people dancing (yet another indie-rockdom rarity).
Elsewhere during the show, Spoon touched upon most of their back catalog, from the rowdy stomp of “Utilitarian” to the song that, in a just world, would have been screaming from convertibles and Jeeps during the summer of 1998, “Car Radio”. At one break between songs, Daniel noted that it was their first show at The Middle East since January 1995, which also happened to be their first show outside of the Austin area. On a disappointing note, Spoon did not play any songs from their debut LP, Telephono. If the material has been retired as an effort to distance themselves from the album, then it really is a shame that songs as captivating as “Dismember” and “Idiot Driver” will not be played again by the band.
But I suppose fans need not worry. Not resting on their recorded successes, Spoon road-tested a new song for the crowd that was based more around bouncy piano/keyboards than guitars. (The song was so new, in fact, that Kuebler half-jokingly asked the club’s lighting technician to keep the lights on high so he could see his notes.) Which sort of begs the question: whom will Spoon have the unfortunate distinction of being compared to on their next album? I’m fairly certain it won’t be that seminal ‘80s quartet from Boston.