Spoon's sordid history has by now wormed its way into the public domain of indie rock as yet another epic struggle between fiery D.I.Y. spirit and deceitful industry suits. Long story short -- after scratchy debut Telephono (Matador, 1996), folks from Elektra come a-knocking; the major releases the critically acclaimed but poor selling A Series of Sneaks (1998) and then drops Spoon immediately after key A&R rep jumps ship; band rebounds with an EP (The Agony of Laffitte, Saddle Creek, 1999) deriding the whole ordeal and soon falls in with Merge, a notoriously reliable indie label.
After a re-introductory EP (Love Ways), Spoon bowed with last year's Girls Can Tell, a timeless melding of posh Motown prettiness, post-punk rumble 'n' shake, indie rock irony, and classic songwriting chops. Growling leader Britt Daniel had always been likened to the Pixies, Wire, and Jonathan Richman, but Girls found him coming boldly into his own. That throaty bark could now soften for ballads and tossed-off harmonies, even as the band's music adopted more of a shimmering pop sheen than ever foreshadowed.
Girls Can Tell came out around the middle of 2001, long before most critics were compiling their annual best-of-year lists. Still, I remember driving around with friends -- lost in the city looking for a party that turned out to be not quite worth looking for -- and playing Girls in the car with the grandiose promise that "you won't hear a better album this year". Even into 2002, after the spectacle of White Stripes and Strokes had subsided a bit, Girls remained the crown jewel of 2001 rock in my book.
And it remains still, except that now I'm too distracted by Kill the Moonlight to dwell on Spoon's past, considering how vastly forward-looking the new album is.
Skeptical? Ask Gerard Cosloy, the wry Matador Records honcho who still loves and lionizes Spoon. In the press kit for Kill the Moonlight, he first references his previous press-kit detailing of Girls Can Tell, where he called the band the best in Texas, poking fun at more popular Texan bands like At the Drive-In and . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. This time around, he says, "That will be the last time I ever sell them short." You'll forgive the hyperbole. It's just that Spoon has become great enough to make this sort of schoolgirl crush inevitable.
Right away, the secret weapon on Kill the Moonlight is revealed to be drummer Jim Eno, who co-produced the album in his Austin studio with Daniel and Mike McCarthy. Beyond pounding the skins, Eno is Daniel's perpetual right-hand man, creatively present at every step. Without Eno, the brash samples and effects underscoring so many of Kill the Moonlight's songs might not have come off nearly as well as they do. In fact, Moonlight is so adventurous in its rhythmic thrust that some people will be calling upon the oft-cited name of Kid A when all other comparisons fail.
Cosloy knows better, coolly citing the pervasive Suicide element of the opening "Small Stakes", on which repetitive organ riffs rumble in empty space with a tambourine and some random clanging as Daniels growls with seductive urgency. The lyrics allude to class concerns -- "The big innovation of the minimum wage / is lines up your nose but your life on the page" -- with his typical streetwise sense, which he acknowledges with the challenge, "So c'mon / Tell me I'm wrong". With the rough-cut feeling of a basement collage, the song briefly summons the golden era of Guided By Voices, with broken bits of traditional rock instrumentation peeking in at the close.
"The Way We Get By" is less quirky, built on a rollicking piano line and handclaps. It's a perfect three-minute single (okay, 2:40), instantly appealing and increasingly rewarding. Ever documenting youthful recklessness, Daniel opens, "We get high in the back seats of cars / We break into mobile homes", then proclaiming, "That's the way we get by". There's more memorable lines on the way, like "We go out in stormy weather / We rarely practice discern / We make love to some weird sin / We seek out the taciturn" and especially "We found a new kind of dance in a magazine / Tried it out / It's like nothing you ever seen / You sweet talk like a cop / and you know it / You bought a new bag of pot / Said let's make a new start". One is reminded of Jonathan Richman, except Daniel is more like the antagonist Hippie Johnny in the Modern Lovers' classic "I'm Straight".
"Something to Look Forward To" is nicely knotty, a too-short spurt of sass that mentions "your Chicago manual of style". "Stay Don't Go" is built on wiry guitar, a homemade sample, and singing so falsetto that Daniel sounds like a eunuch. Truth be told, it wouldn't feel out of place on Kid A, finding too the very human soul in fractured modern mechanics. "Jonathan Fisk" is more punk-ish but still relatively spare, even when a saxophone surfaces. A brisk anthem about a bully (think an updated "Big Bad Leroy Brown") it goes, "Jonathan Fisk speaks with his fists Jonathan then says it's a sin / But he don't think twice cause to him / Religion don't mean a thing / It's just another way to be right wing". "Paper Tiger" is quietly spooky, with interlocking sonic shards and Daniel breathing sweet new life into classic love-song fodder -- "I'm not dumb / Just want to hold your hand" and "I will be there with you when you turn out the light".
"Someone Something" is another piano-based would-be hit, under three minutes and immaculately crafted. Defining line -- "Everything moves so fast / I should know it won't last". Still with piano but also with newfound bluesy twang, "Don't Let It Get You Down" could climb the Adult Contemporary charts, if not for Daniel's raspy pipes and unconventional production tastes. Heck, it might still have an outside chance. "All the Pretty Girls Go to the City" is haunted by brooding keys and, finally, lush instrumentation, like a Motown 45 transmitted from the wrong side of the tracks. The specter of Richman again looms long, as does that of Lou Reed, but Daniel seems more self-assured and distinct in compensation.
"You Gotta Feel It" is eternally bluesy, if less striking than some of the other songs. "Back to the Life" opens with a demented cackle, then laying on heavy rhythmic sampling and melodic trickery. Judging from the lyrics in general, it appears that Daniel's wordplay becomes simpler and less brainy as Moonlight wanes, with the most rudimentary lines tucked near album's end. Conversely, the music becomes thicker and more muddled with each track past the halfway mark. The closing "Vittorio E". is weirdly wonderful, an anti-ballad on which Daniel croons, "I took a river and it wouldn't let go / I want you to stay / and I want you to go I took a river and the river was long / I want you to stay / course I want you to go". The song and album trail off with the earthy wisdom, "It goes on", making for a closing as subtle as the band could have mustered.
Although the breakout Girls Can Tell somewhat prepared us for a gloriously vibrant follow-up, Kill the Moonlight makes too tremendous a leap to have been called ahead of time. Meticulously choppy and frequently free of inherent genre boundaries, it's an askew masterpiece of brains, brawn, heart, and soul. Four albums in, Spoon should bring listeners of all worlds to a screeching halt with this one.