By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
What a decade of sleights-of-hand and comic mistimings this has been, as we emerge with none of our alt-spokesmen standing, and their industry support utterly squeezed out between urban enthusiasts and country-western fans. Only a few years back you'd catch major-label A&R kids speaking like mature individuals who'd survived relationship counseling, saying that certain acts had to be nurtured, talking about honesty and commitment, that audiences required respect, that expectations had to be patiently shaped. . . . Well, such talkers are no more, replaced now by bottom-dwellers dwelling on the bottom line who treat imaginative singers and songwriters with contempt, like one-night stands. As a side consequence, not only have I been purged from the demographic that once used to nourish me, but also my demographic itself has been purged. People assure me the future is online and the underground will rise yet again, but lately my legs are cramping up, I'd like to sit down, so fuck you, how long am I supposed to wait? Should I be satisfied that Ween is nearly a household name? Am I to feel gleeful that Elliott Smith played the Oscars while resting in Celine Dion's bosom and that the money we paid for the song "Man on the Moon" now brings it back to us in movie form? I can march up and down my aisle of favorite '90s records and almost all I see are artists who guaranteed something they didn't deliver or just got screwed (the one exception, I can be persuaded, is the Beastie Boys), or wonderful acts like the Lilys and Lambchop who would've significantly altered our beloved revolutionary popscape had they been promoted, or musicmakers in possession of Dylan's head-full-of-ideas-that're-driving-them-insane like Very Pleasant Neighbor and Death Cab for Cutie who couldn't even get their discs into shops.
All of which is to say I like this band called Spoon. They're three fellows from Texas who in 1998after a record and a half on a small-ish labelmade A Series of Sneaks for Elektra. Sneaks has all the sounds of crushed fury and longing I love, thick-tongued words that appear super-significant but once deciphered make sense only in a found-object sorta way, songs of a minute or two in length. It's a record that stinks to high heaven of unbridled ambition (remember ambition?), reminiscent of Bruce Sterlingor some similarly pirate-minded attackist author personassuring the Times that he wasn't TRYING to do ANYTHING with CULTURE except to TAKE IT OVER. But would the takeover be worth celebrating? Despite Sneaks's old-fashioned enthusiasm about itself, Spoon were quite cognizant of all the ways '90s rock was supposed to bring us together but hadn't, because the breakthroughs didn't break through, or the geniuses croaked or choked.
I listened to Sneaks mostly to imagine the singer guy's face, a face I heard as resembling the young Joe Strummer, the young Paul Westerberg. The sneer, the hopefulness, the clouded gaze lit with fiery dawn. In truth, there lives no face not beautiful when painted in colors of passion and pride. Behind the brow furrowed in suspicion, in back of the scowl and the fed-up stubbornness, he sings as if understanding all we have riding on him, wanting more than anything to honor that.
By now you're assuming I've made up this record because (1) you've never heard of it, and (2) things that're that good get heard. They don't, though. A lot of good bands don't get signed, even more good bands make bad records, still more good bands make good records that're distributed or promoted badly. Out of nowhere our tastes change and we confound the moneymen. The music market is just the dance of so many random intangibles. . . . The record companies alertly stand to the side, conducting polls and dictating memos, as baffled as anyone about why we're sick of Alanis now but not yet over Britney, why we fickle folks like what we like. It's akin to the stock exchange, really, a scene of bluffing gamblers, or a bunker full of addictive liars or con men guessing at the dreams of the customersas Joseph did with Pharaohto thereby establish a wise reputation. Case in point, something went wrong, terribly wrong, with Spoon: Before their imminent classic Sneaks ever had its chance to be "worked," some god gave them the finger. They were cut from Elektra's roster only four months after Sneaks came out. (Four months! Jello pudding snacks have a longer shelf life.) Of course, it's not just Spoon; that's what I'm sayingeveryone who looked or sounded "alternative" suddenly couldn't summon up enough sales to make big the eyes of the bigwigs. Spoon, for one, were not surprised, but that doesn't mean they weren't hurt.
Their response was a two-song CDa "concept single"addressed to Ron Laffitte (their former A&R guy at Elektra). Lacking any context, I assumed, when first I heard how these songs hovered between sobbing and spitting, that they were telling about a cruel ex, or possibly an elected official who broke our hearts. Are you ever honest with anyone? "It's like I knew two of you, man," goes the vocalist, discouraged, disgusted, "one before and after we shook hands." The songs"The Agony of Laffitte" and "Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now"manage to say things that no band, to my knowledge, has ever sung to a former record company. They're not exercises in bratty name-calling and bellyaching. Whether people like Elektra chairman Sylvia Rhonewho repeatedly assured Spoon she wouldn't drop them until she did exactly thatdeserve our pity or not, Spoon apparently think so. These songs do not lack sympathy. The singer sings as one who is intimate with betrayal, even expects it, for he himself has gotten through lifeas Spoon's only major-label title admittedusing a series of sneaks. This new release's balance of compassion and blame and fury and guilt and impatience sounds creepily like Kurt Cobain willonce he's dug up and unplugged again.
Camden Joy's second novel, Boy Island (Quill/Morrow), appears in stores next month. Spoon's single is available from www.saddle-creek.com.