Spoon’s butts look like this
Spoon + American Music Club + Mary Timony
November 6, 2005
Going to indie-rock shows gets old for people who just go to indie-rock shows. Can you imagine how it feels for people in bands? Men and women who spend the best years of their lives cooping themselves up in shitty vans, getting stranded in little towns in New Mexico when those vans inevitably break down, never sure if they’ll hit a patch of ice and flip over twice and die? People who play the same bars in every town with the same beer-puddle stink and promo posters on the wall, show dates magic-markered across the bottoms? Making no money, clothes always smelling like ashtrays? There’s a reason why people quit playing in bands and become lawyers or A&R people or junkies or whatever. That constant grind must just kill you. All three of the bands that played Warsaw last night are indie lifers, and it’s a miracle that people like that exist. The room was full because of Spoon, of course, a band that has done this shit for years and been smart and lucky enough to carve out its own tiny little space in the mass consciousness. They’ve hit the gold mine: records debuting in the top 50, songs on The O.C., an audience that goes beyond Magnet subscribers. A band can’t come as far as Spoon has just by being great; luck and timing and market-positioning and the fact that Britt Daniel is a handsome man figure into the equation as well. But Spoon is great, and that’s part of the reason that they’re in a position to sell out two huge NYC venues in one weekend. American Music Club and Mary Timony are not great, and they’re not big like Spoon. So, capitalism works? Maybe?
Spoon isn’t a band you’d expect would be especially good live, just like you wouldn’t expect Timbaland or Jon Brion or, like, Phil Spector to be especially good live. Over its past three albums, Spoon has founds its voice by winnowing its songs down to bare essentials, nothing but a tambourine and a voice and a nifty little organ riff if that’s all that’s needed. It’s rock songwriting as graphic design: this downbeat goes here, this acoustic-guitar sqiggle would look good there, we shouldn’t mess with the empty space here. Even the big noise solo on “My Mathematical Mind” is deployed with a weird precision, contained and limited to the point where it never threatens to take over. But how do you maintain that precision when you’re playing live, when the soundman fucks up or the drummer wants to do a fill or you’re drunk. And so Spoon never fucks up; the band is a model of elegant restraint. Even Daniel’s facial expression never changes. The arrangements might be slighty different, but the craftsmanship and poise of the songs come through unmolested. There’s something controlled and professional about the band; they remain controlled and nonchalant throughout the song, only addressing the audience enough that that won’t come off looking like assholes. This might read as faint praise, but it isn’t. Spoon writes great songs, fussy but unpretentious, effortless but never tossed-off, hooky and nervy and graceful. They wouldn’t work if the band played them sloppily, so the band doesn’t play them sloppily. They’re professionals, and this is what they do.
“Having us on the bill is like being nice to your old alcoholic gay dad,” said Marc Eitzel at the beginning of American Music Club’s set, and he wasn’t wrong. I’d never heard the recently-reformed band before last night, but they sounded almost exactly as I thought they would: heavily reverbed, depressive alt-country with no hooks and lyrics about my only sin is hating my own skin. What I didn’t expect was how goofy and genial Eitzel was, knocking out the funny song-explanation narratives between songs and hamming it up like a lounge singer during the songs. Eitzel has an appealingly thick, smokey voice, but you’ve got a problem if moody sad-sack country is your trade and you can’t even muster up a hint of intensity for a Joy Division cover. Eitzel’s brand of music demands a certain measure of force and passion. American Music Club didn’t have it, so they were boring. It’s a weird predicament: they’d be better if they didn’t seem so damn happy.
Download: “If I Had a Hammer”
Mary Timony was in Helium, of course, but my favorite thing she’s ever done is The Age of Backwards, a 1999 EP she released with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein as the Spells. I love that EP: lush but skeletal, languid but forceful, all intricate wiry guitar lines and perfect bedridden deadpan vocals. Timony could use another collaborator like Brownstein; if last night’s show is any evidence, she’s kept the intricate wiry guitar lines and lost everything else. Playing with just a busy drummer as her backing band, she sounded like a hookless Slant 6, all flat monotone and tinnily ringing guitar. The result was oddly dinky, never getting off the ground into the celestial swoon her records occasionally find. It’s sad; Timony could be as big as Spoon if she’s refined her vision the same way they have, if she’d made three or four albums as good as the Spells EP instead of fooling around with embarrassing fairy-princess imagery and half-assed barely-there songs. If she gets her focus back, she could still be. But it must get boring on the van, you know?
Download: “Friend to JC”