[15 April 2010]
PopMatters Features Editor
Spoon is arguably the most beloved indie band of the 2000s. They have released at least three “Best Of” list records in the past eight years (Kill the Moonlight, Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga). Among critics and musicians, high schoolers and college kids, artists and barristas, this is a band about which it seems everyone can agree. Melody-driven, experimental (but never alienating), and sweetly (read: unthreateningly) unconventional, Spoon was famously mismanaged by a major label before finding a home as the face of Merge Records, setting them up as a kind of archetypal indie success story. So, just as people are drawn to them for their infectious sound, many also revere them for their underdog victory. Between lead-singer Britt Daniel’s indelible rasp, the stinging and judicious use of affected guitars, the rhythmic plinking of piano keys, and the locked-in simplicity of the bass-drum arrangements, in Spoon you can actually hear the intersection between pop and indie, between Pitchfork-approved and standard radio fare.
Which puts them in a funny position.
As a band that is effectively defined by its accessible (but not too accessible) sound, Spoon can too often appear trapped by its own formula. At a recent concert (in the abysmal Toronto abattoir-cum-rock venue The Sound Academy) we were treated to a lengthy (24-song) set of uniformly well-played, well-executed, and ultimately unmoving performances. They did it all, and they never (to my ears) missed a cue. It was tight – lock-step interplay between bass and drums being a key to their sound – and it was rocking. The setlist was well proportioned, scattered with “hits” and deeper cuts, newer and older material, loud and quiet stuff. But it was all of a kind. Somehow, a show by a favorite band playing a bunch of favorite songs was more enervating than engaging.
This may be passed off as my own problem - was I tired? in a bad mood? or am I just a contrary guy/kind of a dick? etc. – but the room all around me stood stoned by the same lack of oomph that had struck me. Arms were crossed, heads bobbed, but feet stayed planted. People sang along, sort of, but mostly just swayed and watched. It was more like taking in a music video than experiencing the visceral thrill of a live show. As a friend pointed out while we waded through the discarded beer can detritus at show’s end, ever since about ¾ of the way through the set, people all around us seemed to be waiting for the band to call it a day. They were cheering, but, like us, they had found themselves acutely disconnected from the men on stage.
Deerhunter opened with an impressive set of spacey synth-rock all awash in reverb and noise. Thankfully, their woozy, acid-laced studio sound translates fairly well to a live situation; though somewhat chaotic at times, the material mostly came through cleanly. However, though the music was good, the stage presence was a comic debacle. Throughout, Deerhunter’s front man, an absurdy skinny Bradford Cox, made various attempts to confuse the crowd, all of which was quite fun (if a little goofy and contrived). For example, he arrived onstage wearing a huge hooded sweater (hood up, over his head) and proceeded to play like that for about fifteen minutes. I actually heard a guy say “What a douche” from over my shoulder. And then, in introducing a tune towards the end of their hour-long set, he explained: “This song is dedicated to all the babies who suffocate because their parents neglect them.” When the crowd laughed – what else could they do? – he feigned annoyance, shrieking “It’s not funny, not fucking funny”. Ugh.