After recently hitting pretty big (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga in the Billboard top 10), it’s interesting to consider the path of Spoon. This band out of Austin seems to have achieved that elusive indie crossover status. However, this wasn’t without effort and great change within the band’s sound.
Spoon is now amongst my favorite artists, but it’s a bit harder to see their greatness in their early days.
Early Days: Pixie Phone
It is effortless to peg early Spoon efforts as Pixies-inspired. Dynamic shifts, near-scream vocals and thrashing guitars instantly recall the sounds of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Pixies are lauded as one of the great rock bands. To copy one of the greats is probably a wise choice.
Unfortunately, Spoon’s first two albums do very little to stand apart from other bands. Thankfully there are two points that differentiate the group: Britt Daniels and Jim Eno.
For all the derivative sounds, lead singer and main composer Britt Daniels had a knack for sonic quality from the start. By ensuring that first album Telephono was an excellent Pixies facsimile, the record nearly stands the test of time.
The second facet of Spoon’s early success is in drummer Jim Eno. Inventive fills and a great sense of rhythm infect every song on Telephono.
Spoon began a significant shift in two late-90s releases: Soft Effects EP and A Series of Sneaks. While still retaining the arena-sized sound of Pixies, the sonic textures and qualities of each song were now driving outside the realm of even Doolittle.
“Mountain to Sound” and “Waiting for the Kid to Come Out” (both from Soft Effects) offered a more nuanced Spoon sound. While featuring heavily distorted vocals, very few extra sounds permeated “Mountain,” offering a look into the future of the band. Similarly, “Waiting for the Kid” held to the soft-loud-soft structure in a careful manner. Verses were very soft, nearly stripping the song of all noise.
A Series of Sneaks saw Spoon transform further, nearly closing in on a blend of Doolittle and Radiohead’s The Bends. Much of the difference here was in vocal delivery. Suddenly, Britt Daniels didn’t need to lean on any Black Francis impersonations. Daniels sounds more confident here, willing to utilize his own expressivity in crafting songs.
Spoon seemed to be on the verge of something great with Sneaks, building memorable songs and starting to rely on individual style. Unfortunately, this release didn’t seem to be the thing a major label wanted.
Getting Dumped and Starting Over
A Series of Sneaks was released on major label Elektra in 1998. But with little marketing support and low album sales, Spoon was dumped. This kind of support can rather shake a band. Spoon responded harshly with the two-song single “The Agony of Laffitte.” The scathing songs about former Elektra ally Ron Laffitte dropped in an intermediary period for the band.
Soon enough, Spoon landed with indie label Merge (the home of Neutral Milk Hotel, and eventually Arcade Fire). In this case, the change was much more than just a sticker on a record. Spoon was in for a massive overhaul.
The Best Four Consecutive Records
From this point forward, Spoon began what seemed to be an experiment in minimalism. Instead of building on the big Pixies sounds, Britt Daniels explored the core of his songs, stripping each track to the bare minimum components.
This change was instantly seen on Girls Can Tell, an album that offered a decidedly lighter Spoon with more organ and piano noises. The constant barrage of crunchy guitar was all but removed, instead allowing minimal guitar interjections to reign.
This shift worked almost flawlessly. Instead of a set of songs that sounded alike, Girls Can Tell offered unique styling in each track. This shift was also reflected by longer songs. Few pieces were two minutes, and a few even stretched beyond the four-minute mark.
Girls Can Tell also brought a new level of lyrical complexity, offering insight into the emotional world of the band. “The Fitted Shirt” brought a memorable tale of growth and admiration for a father figure. “Chicago at Night” holds excellent imagery, built around a haunting organ and expressive guitar.
But Spoon did not stop here. Suddenly the band had a distinctive sound and one great album. They followed this up with an even better album: Kill the Moonlight.
Quite suddenly, Spoon had altered their career path through insane songwriting talent. Daniels and Eno tightened each song, turning Kill the Moonlight into a brilliant effort. Organs, pianos and light electronics might point toward musical excess, but are used economically in “Small Stakes,” “Paper Tiger,” and “Vittorio E.”
Somehow, the band managed to continue this momentum through their next two albums. Gimmie Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga are packed with memorable songs – each track distinctive, yet clear of any unneeded sounds.
I would argue that Spoon has the strongest top-to-bottom library in all modern music. This is a fairly bold claim, but the band constantly offers innovative approaches to the realm of rock. Funk, soul and R&B can be pulled from recent hits “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “Don’t You Evah.” Pure fun is available in “Sister Jack.” Appropriate guitar solos (nothing fancy, but still fun) is there in “Believing is Art.”
For any variation on rock, Spoon seems to have an answer. But their method is why they’re so noteworthy: pulling away at music to leave the core. It’s a risky proposition (what happens when you have too little?), but Daniels has proven again and again that he’s a qualified artist.
The future looks bright for Spoon. Being on Merge, they needn’t worry about the pains of a major label. However, they’ve now gained the kind of success that many on the big-brands crave. This achievement through (pardon the cliché) being themselves is very encouraging. I can’t wait to see what Spoon is going to dismantle next.