Impeding the Stampede

Britt Daniel's Austin indie heroes resort to adoration-averse post-hoopla ambivalence

Does a band's myth determine its destiny? Britt Daniel wants to tell us that it isn't that simple. From Spoon's proto-punk origins in Austin through their sole Elektra album, 1998's Series of Sneaks, up to the renaissance heralded by Girls Can Tell in 2001, every new release seemed less a curveball thrown at us than a curveball thrown at them. Label drama aside, Spoon's style never took radical detours on its journey toward pure pop for now people. The jagged outburst of guitar on "Don't Buy the Realistic" in 1994 prefigures the calmer hook of Girls Can Tell's "Everything Hits at Once." If that album had been represented as their major label debut rather than their revival on Merge, the same eggheads who lauded it might have cried sellout. Timing is important.

The important exception, where Spoon jerked hardest on the reins of the music business bronco, is "The Agony of Lafitte"/"Lafitte Don't Fail Me Now," a 45 trashing their Elektra a&r man. That single's inappropriate anger was a necessary step in re-establishing Spoon's indieness. What exec would sign a dude capable of such a personal tirade? This bitter move, too kamikaze to be canny, would prove that he and his ilk belonged back in the world of upstarts. It reminded us why independent labels exist.

From that moment, we knew Daniel had an ornery side. Still, 2002's Kill the Moonlight, musically their most radical swerve, with bodacious jams built around keyboards and tape loops, lulled us into thinking they could bring a nation of badgers out of their holes. We heard the Merseybeat populism in "Small Stakes," not the Julian Cope fatalism. Remember 2002? We wanted a connection to someone, something, anything, after What Happened. We wanted something to look forward to. We wanted to feel it. But what? Daniel never specified. These were battle cries from Travis County, a tiny blue rock on a vast red prairie. Since venturing beyond the county line means meeting a stampede of Republicans head on, Austinites fight hardest for the right to stay put. Daniel was as lost as us, better at comfort than inspiration. "Keep believing the things that you tell yourself," he advised. And on the tender ballad "Paper Tiger," his warm promises didn't altogether offset his terrorism alert. "The new war will get you/It will not protect you/But I will be there with you/When you turn out the light."

We also assumed, maybe from the joy with which "The Way We Get By" described us, that Spoon's mistrust of success had everything to do with the biz and nothing to do with us. Thus, their hard-earned meteoric rise would ensue. But their newest, Gimme Fiction, has the trappings of adoration-averse post-hoopla ambivalence. A lyrical obliquity not encountered since Girls Can Tell has returned, for example. On the first two tracks, Daniel invents a couple of stand-ins, one of whom might be a dragon, a muse, or both, the other an inscrutable Romantic figure with a split personality. It's enough to make you suspect that Gimme Fiction is a concept album about obscure 19th-century novels. It isn't.

The tunes that invite us in remain a bit underdeveloped. "I Turn My Camera On" is a fake disco throwaway in falsetto, and though not as affecting as "Stay Don't Go," it achieves a refreshing new silliness. In contrast, Eggo Johansen's two-chord piano riff drives "My Mathematical Mind," both an open letter to Daniel's fellow large-eared Texan George W. Bush and a critique of the complacency of "Small Stakes" (which may have been ironic anyway). "No more riding the brakes," Daniel declares. "I'm gonna see the stakes." But the pulsating, hand-clapping hoedown "They Never Got You" anchors the record's philosophy. In it Daniel addresses a misunderstood genius and advises him or her to remain mysterious. "Cover the path to the heart. . . . And don't let no one in." As a grudging compromise between popular appeal and alternative cred, Daniel sings the praises of Spoon fans, but only the difficult ones—or bets that we're all difficult.

 
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