Spoon Forks Over the Rock, Cuts Like a Knife

Some unseen phototographer's assistant is getting bawled out in this candid shot of Spoon
Courtesy of Tag Team Media

Spoon, like Grand Funk Railroad, are an American band. They're an American band given over with pledged hearts and singular minds to the pleasure and uncontrolled substance of rock 'n' roll. On Gimme Fiction (Merge), their fifth and latest album, they tend to their ever-likeable indie-rock formalism by adding a touch of the traditional. In the process they find their place in the queue behind classic rock's distillation-and- transformation contingent--bands that stripped back all the muscle and got to the marrow like mortuary scientists, working those skeletal elements until they became something animated and new. These days all that "stripped-down," roots-of-rock language is mixed up with bad blues signifiers and Eric Clapton doing "Layla" acoustic while sitting primly on a stool. But that's not the lineage one would ascribe to Spoon. Spoon are an American band in the manner (not the mold) of Creedence and Big Star, glowing with a reverence for big beats and righteous guitars and rock down to its essence, unfurling a huge flag to say exactly where they're coming from.

Actually, there's little mistaking: Spoon are from Texas. The expanse and endless dry space informs chorus and verse throughout Gimme Fiction. While they've long been credited with/accused of milking an early-'60s Motown formula of a thumpy and vaguely dance-y piano-and-drums backbone, the band's sound is now slanting toward something more multivalent and reserved. What's being played is as crucial and telling as what isn't. Frontman Britt Daniel plays guitar like he's never known anything but rhythm playing. Even when he solos, it's mostly jagged junt-junt and carefully careening stutters with long striding pauses. First there's the darkness of the desert at night, its echoes and howls, and then Spoon wanders in, confident and unafraid in the high lonesome. The result is an album that's bravely subtle yet still wallops like a dirty brick to the teeth.

A prime example of that m.o. is the self-defining "Merchants of Soul," a key-hit of swagger that shimmies and stops short of implosive petite mort. The rhythm track sounds like seven hands clapping plus drums subjected to basement-demo-tape production, evoking a trap set jury-rigged out of buckets and cookie sheets. Jim Eno's drumming is mercilessly tight and in the pocket, delivering the 4/4 as pure as a mantra. Having seemingly disavowed fills of any sort (the first one shows up, almost like a cameo, about 12 minutes into the album), he seems to put the auxiliary force of shakers, cowbells, and chorus-sweetening hand-clappery in charge of hooks, until they carry the weight of the song. It's magic, it's righteous.

"They Never Got You" sounds like a bar band at first, then like new-wave soul. Eno minds the beat so steady it makes your average drum machine sound like Neal Pert from Rush. It's a terse, insistent shuffle that throws in the rare minor chord for a bit of chiaroscuro and drama. The song makes evident the fact that production and mixing are as crucial in driving the band's sound as the terminal major-chord piano stabs that roll through every song. Sleigh bells pushed high in the mix, reverb-y vapors chasing themselves through a bridge of drums-on-piano ploink while Daniel's reedy-but-owning-it falsetto lets layers drift in below, drawing some DNA-held memory of AM gold, or that time you got really stoned and listened to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. On "The Delicate Place" the loudest thing in the mix is the ride cymbal, which sounds like a quick visit to hell, but it pierces a simple strum and a crystalline guitar hook and an abstruse lyrical bit about heartbreak, corrupting all the feel-good ruffles and cooey tenderness with a deftness that easily passes for perfection.

That tune seems designed to relive the pall that lingers over the album's opening third. It follows "My Mathematical Mind," an apocalyptic yet anthemic ditty by way of girl trouble. Daniel spits with a wry, split tongue like a man exhausted, his voice shredded and wistful, as if he has just realized there's no such thing as love, only hope, fucking, and nostalgia in various combinations. "I'm looking through you/Riding the brakes," he sings, with a husky rasp stretching nearly out of his command, oscillating between sangfroid and disgust. "Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" sets luscious, swelling strings and thick, pensive hooks against a lyrical bent that recalls the creepy calm of Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, making "Monsieur Valentine" sound like some dude with a Rollie Fingers moustache whom you'd meet in rehab.

But nothing lays out Spoon's manifesto quite like the album's opener, "The Beast and Dragon, Adored," on which they kick it minimalist and slinky, terse and broody, and right when you want it, they go nucleus-exploding macro, and wind up sounding like what Badfinger might have become if the two dudes hadn't been so successfully suicidal, but rather lived to tell. Gimme Fiction is at once both unyieldingly bright and in command of some dark pathos; these are feel-good hits built on restraint, anthems under siege, with Daniel howling, both when he's delivering the words and elsewhere, "When you don't feel it, it shows /They tear out your soul/When you believe/They call it rock 'n' roll."

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