It can’t really be this easy, can it?
Rain changes everything. For weeks, I’d been looking forward to Spoon’s big free outdoor show at Rockefeller Park: an indie band perpetually reaching new heights in mainstream visibility playing an open-to-everyone show the day after the release of their widely-praised new album, a zeitgeist in a can. But as I was leaving the office on my way to the show, rain started coming down in sheets, filling the air in a way that wasn’t altogether unpleasant. Walking outside with no umbrella last night actually felt like swimming. I figured there was no way the show was happening, so I went to dinner with Bridget and her father instead. When we got out of the restaurant, though, it was suddenly a beautiful night, so I ended up heading to the show, a process that involved going to the wrong place first (for some reason I was convinced it was going to be at Battery Park instead) and missing about two thirds of Spoon’s set in all the confusion. I made it to Rockefeller Park for maybe the last five songs of their already-truncated set, so this won’t really be a proper Spoon live review. I’m glad I got to go at all, though, since there’s something really interesting happening with this band, and it’s fun to watch it happen. Spoon is essentially becoming a mainstream rock band without becoming a mainstream rock band. They make tight, catchy, slightly inscrutable little pop songs, but that’s what they’ve always done, even when I first saw them, opening for Guided by Voices at a shitty Syracuse bar six years ago. They went through the major-label rigmarole way before they started to blow up, so they know better than to mess with it again. These days, they record for an indie label with a roster that major-owned boutiques can only envy. They show up on movie trailers and in TV shows. The last time I saw them, I ran into an old friend, a guy who really only listened to, like, Wu-Tang and Billy Joel in high school and who I’d never heard expressing any particular interest in indie-rock. Even with the rain-based uncertainty, a whole lot of people showed up to last night’s show. I was standing in the back, and the crowd there was pretty sparse on stereotypical indie-rock types. As Matthew Fluxblog’s pointed out, this was a mellow fratty crowd, one that knew all the songs and wasn’t afraid to sing along badly. So Spoon has quietly and assuredly built up a pretty formidable fanbase, doing it through constant touring and word-of-mouth. They’ve avoided hype-cycles and trends and scenes. They make pretty, austere songs with verve and assurance and sex and tension, but they don’t wallop you over the head with emotional pyrotechnics. And they’ve made an uncommonly strong string of albums that stick to the same set of sonic themes. They’ve come a long way, and they’ve done it without ever calling a lot of attention to themselves.
In some ways, last night’s show was the exact opposite of Saturday’s Boredoms drum-orgy: orderly instead of chaotic, song-based instead of jammy and freeform, linear instead of miasmic. Most everyone in the crowd was wet and bedraggled as fuck, but the people onstage all looked immaculate, like they’d come directly from a photo-shoot, which is how this band always seems to look. Spoon’s last four albums are all astoundingly effective in their minimal sparseness; as every other critic has already pointed out, they pare power-pop songs down to their barest necessities, removing every extraneous sound and turning their songs into these perfect little machines. Even more admirably, they’ve managed to make that meticulous fussiness translate to their live act; you never hear accidental peals of feedback or orphaned drum-thwacks when this band is onstage. And because of that mechanistic consistency, there will probably never be a transcendent Spoon show, but there might never be a bad one, either. The one agent of disruption is Britt Daniel’s voice, not because he slashes it across the notes or anything (he doesn’t) but because his clenched reserve seems to hide vast reserves of fury and disappointment. He’s got a great rock-star voice, but it’s not the sort of rock-star voice you hear often anymore: a Southern accent doing a fake British accent doing a fake Southern accent. He never fully commits to the songs, at least not in the over-the-top soul-baring splurge that most indie-singers use. He keeps his guard up and plays all his ideas close to the vest, but they all seep out anyway, by degrees. His songs are all implication: telling little images, fragmented thoughts, shivery lines of melody. The band’s rhythmic sense is a powerful force; these songs are virtually all pocket. When they left the stage last night to the Supremes’ “Baby Love,” it made perfect sense; that Motown assembly-line precision is what they aspire to.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the new album, has the same itchy economy as the previous three. There are more instruments in the mix; a small horn-section even joined them onstage for a few songs last night. But those instruments are never allowed out of their very specific roles. I like the album, and I think I’ll probably like it a lot more in a few months. On Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight, still my favorite Spoon records, the longing jumped out right away. On this one, the feelings are harder to decipher, at least at first. When the album first hit the internet a month or so ago, most critics I know didn’t much like it at first,, gradually starting to think it was OK and eventually coming to love it. I haven’t come to love it, at least not yet, but its sense of reserve does intrigue the hell out of me. And maybe that’s what’s attracted Spoon’s always-growing audience. Lately, it’s become a rare thing to hear a rock band who doesn’t do all the work for you, but Spoon force you to meet them halfway.
Voice review: Andy Beta on Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Voice review: James Hannaham on Spoon’s Gimme Fiction
Voice review: Piotr Orlov on Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight
Voice review: Camden Joy on Spoon’s “The Agony of Laffitte”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 12, 2007