[10 July 2007]
Spoon, perhaps the greatest American band of the ‘00s, is a dissident in the studio, for its record-making methodology is counterintuitive to the common practices of its 21st-century peers. It nips and tucks the places that others would normally bulk up, disassembles the structural conceits that are prone to sky-high ostentation, and is an unorthodox decision-maker when it comes to arrangements. Take, for example, “The Underdog”, the catchiest song and first single from the band’s sixth LP, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. It’s a dazzling little pop nugget, one that manages stylistic allusions to both Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and the Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life”, but its arrangement is streamlined and subversive: pieces of the mix drop out when least expected and big-music build-ups turn out to be nothing more than strategic teases; we’re often left to contend with nothing more than a sprinkling of metallic percussion, peppy horns, and/or acoustic guitar strums. A less tactful band would have stumbled upon the song’s hook and shot it straight to the stars, cocooned in layers of unnecessary sound, and you could hardly blame them for it—pop songs this hot practically scream for the wall-of-sound treatment. But in refusing to go the obvious route, Spoon fashions a fresh perspective on an otherwise familiar undertaking.
Fresh and familiar is a consistent hallmark of the Austin band, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga proves to be no exception. It crackles with Revolver pragmatism and Motown propulsion, and is populated with copious amounts of tambourine and handclaps—the most convivial of all pop-music touchstones and instrumentation. Unlike 2005’s Gimme Fiction, which was helmed primarily by Spoon’s core duo of Britt Daniel and Jim Eno, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga employs the rest of the band’s touring lineup: keyboardist Eric Harvey and former Get Up Kids/White Whale bassist Rob Pope, who replaces longtime member Josh Zarbo. As a result, the album is the most groove-oriented effort since 2001’s Girls Can Tell, an efficient rhythm machine with a sinuous palate. The grooves run the stylistic gamut, from hard rockers (the standoffish “Don’t Make Me a Target”, which recycles the descending-riff ferocity of Kill the Moonlight‘s “The Way We Get By”, and the galloping, scrunched-note jam “Finer Feelings”), to Detroit strut (“You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”), the minimalist pulse of Reichian repetition (“The Ghost of You Lingers”), bubbly bass-driven dance fodder (“Don’t You Evah”, a cover of an unreleased song by the NYC band the Natural History), and skinny-tied aggression (“Eddie’s Ragga”).
The legroom in Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s mixes allows the grooves to really take off without the burden of excessive baggage. The reliance on bass in “Don’t You Evah” and drums and percussion in “Finer Feelings” preempts the need for a dominant guitar (so often a rock-music norm); when guitar is added to both songs, it serves to blossom the established momentum. “Eddie’s Ragga”, on the other hand, boasts big steely electric guitar stabs throughout, yet they’re relegated to one channel and intermittently soaked in reverb. Where that song manufactures movement from the residue of echoes, “The Underdog” (the album’s one song produced by Jon Brion; usual suspect Mike McCarthy helmed the other nine tracks) builds from more skeletal remains and achieves almost aerodynamic liftoff. Eno’s drum sound, tremendously boxy in “Don’t Make Me a Target” and skin-tight for the closing track “Black Like Me”, is perhaps the most vital aspect of each track’s animation, even if Daniel’s voice is the band’s more idiosyncratic attribute.
While Daniel may have a limited vocal range, he possesses a sandpapery rock ‘n’ roll voice, as well as a ruthless predisposition to amputate consonants. He’s loyal to the feel of the words and the malleable sounds they make (in his hands, “defective heart” becomes “defecti-hah”, a fragment of sentiment mashed into a cluster of sensation); often, his word choice and delivery is more provocative than the topics he sings about. In “Rhthm & Soul”, a minor-key strummer with a razor-blade groove, Daniel strings together a litany of abrupt verse-pieces with a shared cadence: “Tract houses / Square couches / Short legs and square shoulders / Pot holders / Egg and soldiers / Y’ tank rollers / You all know this”. It’s all phonetic bravado, a spate of concrete images that serve as variations on sympathetic meter and pronunciation. He keeps a loathsome figure at arm’s length in “Don’t Make Me a Target”, while tongue-twisting descriptive passages into barbed insults: “Clubs and sticks and bats and balls / For nuclear dicks with their dialect drawls”. And “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case”, tightly wound and circularly built, subsists of one tidy mantra, “Bring me my Japanese cigarette case / Bring a mirror to my face / Let all my memories be gone”, repeated between bouts of finicky instrumentation, which include koto and flamenco guitar. In this particular case, the reductive lyrics and simple melody contrast the more exotic ambitions of the arrangement.
The handful of purposely misspelled song titles (“Rhthm & Soul”, “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”, “Don’t You Evah”) only reinforce Spoon’s championing of rebellious diction. (Ditto for the seemingly absurd album title, which is in fact a reference to the throbbing eighth notes cycling through “The Ghost of You Lingers”.) It’s the mark of a band in love with the sound of things, with the precision in miniature of its timepiece-like structural knack and the rock ‘n’ roll cool that slouches informally across the calibrated clockwork. Or, as Daniel sings in “The Underdog”, “I wanna forget how convention fits / But can I get out from under it?” Spoon is clearly acquainted with convention, but there’s plenty on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga to suggest that the band harbors its most intimate operational relationships outside the norm.