Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fables and Reflections


We got the new Spoon record a few weeks ago, and after one listen I knew it was going to be difficult to write about coherently. The bulk of the criticism written about the band for the their last two or three releases has perpetuated the mythical idea that Spoon are a "consistent" band, one whose releases are all essentially similar. They're all good, which is impressive, but for basically the same reasons. I don't feel that way at all. Anna C., who had to pay for the new one, wasn't totally sure that we needed another Spoon album.

And that was foolish. Transference is fantastic, and it's not even remotely like any of the other Spoon albums. One of the things that makes it great is that after listening to it a few times I was soon running back to Kill the Moonlight and Series of Sneaks to compare and contrast. Britt Daniel has become so good at record-making this past decade that with each new album his old ones gain new legs. That's pretty impressive, and it's now completely impossible to think of any contemporary band that has maintained course in the same fashion. Spoon have never really altered their instrumentation nor their approach; through a careful consideration of the themes of each record and how the arrangements and mixes ought to be approached to carry over those ideas they've kept making the old sound new with every record since Girls Can Tell. The only other continuously active 00's rock and roll band you could describe as doing the same thing would be Modest Mouse, only their albums just as reliably run out of gas two-thirds of the way through.

Gimme Fiction was a mood record; Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was song-based. Transference is about process -- not just the nature of writing songs and recording them, but also the indirect and uncontrollable series of steps through which a completed recording does or doesn't become lodged in the public's collective consciousness. For a band that owes much of its belated success to the appropriation of its songs to serve other people's artistic needs in films and on TV, Spoon must have nuanced feelings about all this. Daniel doesn't write lazy songs, ever -- in the instance of a lyrical fragment like "My Japanese Cigarette Case" you better believe there's precise reason why the narrator doesn't elaborate. With his icy, rock-nerd precision over every bar of Spoon's music, it must fascinate Daniel how even so he has no control over what listeners will remember from his songs.

Transference recurrently tries to use circular, repeated vocal hooks to plant us somewhere recognizable in the midst of music that in tone at least doesn't always sound a lot like Spoon. On "The Mystery Zone," "Who Makes Your Money," and "Is Love Forever?" certain lines attain the quality of mantras. Not heavy on melody, the record uses backing vocals extensively in a fashion that's entirely new for the band. Rather than overdubbing himself here and there to color or emphasize the main line, Daniel uses his band members a great deal, allowing their loose and imperfect harmonies to represent another way in which the songs are being retraced and half-forgotten. It's been popular to describe the trebly, minimally populated tracks of Transference as "basically demos" or words to that effect. The level of sophistication of the vocals is the first indication that's a poor description.

Not a lot of instruments are being employed to sketch in the songs here, true. But that's not a whole lot different from any of Spoon's albums (save Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which now sounds like more of an outlier). The one it resembles most closely, Kill the Moonlight, also restricted itself to guitar-bass-drums-keys, often leaving out guitar. What separates Transference and Spoon in their ability to make it is that while the instruments used and the sort of patterns and rhythms they're employing are the same as ever, the emotions associated with the sound of this record are new. Using bass and keys for their physical presence more than the additional melodies they provide, Transference is the most down-in-the-groove Spoon record ever, all lean rhythms and intensely felt absences. The drums and piano have no room tone, just dry clacks and plinks. The guitars jab. The rhythm section pokes. "Everyone loves you for your black eye," Britt sings.

The lyrics, indeed, maintain the theme. Whether it's physical scars or half-remembered hearsay, Daniel's songs for Transference are more about the evidence of events than eyewitness accounts. The album is baited with enough great Spoon songs ("Written in Reverse," "Trouble Comes Running," "Got Nuffin") that it's not difficult finding an entry point. But it's the annoying songs that really drive the "concept" home! The slightly vulgar "I felt all creamed on in white" payoff to "I See the Light" makes us question its narrator (and its totally uncharacteristic four-wheel-drive arrangement), then the long instrumental fadeout raises more confusion. What does it all mean? "Goodnight Laura" sounds like it's being pounded out late at night, poignantly, by an amateur. What's more important, Daniel asks for the first time here, how it sounds now in the studio or how it sounds in the minds of the people who end up listening to it over and over again?

Granted, an album-length statement about how your own music is remembered (and its obvious parallel of mortality) is a little bit on the solipsistic side. For anyone else, it would be indulgent, but for Spoon, it represents genuine progress: at least Daniel is considering the existence of minds beyond his own. With music consumption trends as they are now, it takes someone deliberately out of step to make albums that differentiate from each other and have production concepts and organizing principles. Y'know, the way they used to. Daniel's insular insistence on things his way is Spoon's greatest weakness and their greatest asset. Long may he navel-gaze.

[There is absolutely no reason to subject yourself to Transference in its digital formats. The backing vocals, the percussive synthesizer and keyboard parts, the heavy and very particular use of echo on just about everything, the deliberate absence of the nice warm balance of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, all of this stuff is lost on the scraping, overloud digital mix, which sounds like one guitar and drum machine a lot of the time. "Who Makes Your Money" sounds like a completely different song. Buy the record!]

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