Spoon has three members, but frontman Britt Daniel wears so many hats (guitarist, producer, songwriter, singer, barker, yeller, strutter, warbler, cooer) that it sounds more like 11. That’s not to say Spoon songs are particularly intricate (they’re not), but when the cuts are taut and rigid (which they often are), it’s Daniel’s voice that navigates the tight corners. Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, whose fill-happy style is another essential component of the sound, formed Spoon in 1992 in Austin, Texas, signing with the indie stalwart Matador several years later.
Telephono is a well-assured, if indistinct, debut. Rounded out by bassist Andy Maguire, the minimal, rhythmic aesthetic of Spoon’s subsequent releases is well established from the get-go. The tumbling toms and nasally sneer of “Not Turning Off” jump out immediately, stumbling and grumbling into the chorus, where Daniel howls, “Oh honey / Oh please / It’s just a machine.” “Cvantez” slows things down, using sharp guitar upstrokes to punctuate the echoing snare cracks. “Nefarious,” which was the band’s first release (on a 1994 7-inch), is an enthusiastic morsel of layered guitar rock. Affecting enough, but overall it’s just by-the-books indie rock.
The five-song Soft Effects EP eases off Telephono‘s tempo and succeeds gloriously. The closer, “Loss Leaders,” boasts a playful melody (the vocal line shimmies like a jump rope), while “Get Out the State” buzzes with a murky edge and “Mountain of Sound” plods (not always a bad thing!) to a churning riff. Solid from start to finish, it’s the disc to get from Spoon’s early era.
Soon after that, Spoon signed a major-label deal with Elektra and released its masterpiece, A Series of Sneaks. The album plugs a stronger melodic sensibility into arrangements even more stripped of decoration. Daniel tries on an Elvis-type affectation in the lovely “Reservations,” which begins a stretch of five fantastic cuts. The skipping beats and nonsensical scat-derived lyrics of “30 Gallon Tank” come next; “Car Radio” rocks to straight power chord changes. In Sneaks‘ highlight, “Metal Detektor,” Daniel sings, “Metal detector ringing as I’m walking through the door” so cockily that he could be a pimp strutting at a perp walk. “June’s Foreign Spell” presents a manic duel as Daniel’s breathless chanting in the left channel battles ugly, metallic guitar riffs in the right. With these standouts and the Pavement-like closer, “Advance Cassette,” A Series of Sneaks is nearly flawless guitar rock.
The 30 Gallon Tank + 3 EP packages the title cut and “Car Radio” from A Series of Sneaks with the tense “Revenge!” (which has what sounds like a vibraphone being played underwater) and “I Could Be Underground,” perhaps Daniel’s best vocal work, his voice alternating between a sultry falsetto (think Prince, seriously) and a deep, breathy moan.
Spoon left Elektra after A Series of Sneaks‘ poor commercial performance and spat out “The Agony of Laffitte,” a single of two venomous odes to the group’s former A&R man, Ron Laffitte. Early in the A-side, Daniel — his voice crusty with obvious ire — sings, “It’s like I knew two of you, man / The one before and after we shook hands.” The lo-fi production — recorded at the home of Dwayne Barnes (a member, fittingly enough, of Austin indie rockers the Kiss-Offs) — suits the betrayed-by-The-Man theme (i.e., time to restore the indie credit rating) perfectly. The Byrdsy “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now” is just as scathing, with a hook consisting of the lines, “All I want to know / Are you ever honest with anyone?” Both songs were added as bonus cuts to Merge’s 2002 reissue of A Series of Sneaks.
The subsequent return to the indies for the five-song Love Ways EP marks a subtle shift away from Spoon’s rhythmic rock. “Change My Life” is a piddling, reverb-drenched lament that never gets anywhere, “Jealously” is a fair stab at Motown and “Chips and Dip” is quaint but dull. Pass on Love Ways‘ disappointingly generic pop.
On Girls Can Tell, Spoon’s most mature (crit-speak for “doesn’t take many chances”) record, the band slightly stretches its signature sound to feature keyboards just as prominently as guitars — with spotty results. When it works, it can be dazzling — the gorgeous yearning of “Me and the Bean,” the curlicue keyboard hook in “Anything You Want” and the detachment of Daniel’s Auto-tuned voice in the soft closer, “Chicago at Night.” When it doesn’t, it’s not bad, but dull (which may be even worse). “Everything Hits at Once” is an accomplished tune, but repetition of the four-note guitar hook wears over the song’s four minutes. “Take the Fifth” bites too heavily from This Year’s Model-era Elvis, although bassist Josh Zarbo is no Bruce Thomas. And while the conceit of “The Fitted Shirt” is interesting (a fashion-driven lament for simpler days), the music isn’t, which holds true for Girls Can Tell as a whole.
Kill the Moonlight straddles the fence between A Series of Sneaks‘ gasping punk and Girls Can Tell‘s tepid pop, achieving an adolescent tone similar to the Modern Lovers — unembellished, simple, girl-crazed. The songs are like demos, and the album is immediate in a way that Girls Can Tell is not. “Small Stakes” — nothing but keyboard, voice, tambourine and some sporadic rhythm section pattering — works well. “The Way We Get By” is the real stunner. Over a childishly plain piano riff, Daniel offers such nostalgic pangs as, “You bought a new bag of pot / So let’s make a new start / And that’s the way to my heart.” Spoon gets greedy with “Stay Don’t Go,” however. Daniel, perhaps eager for a rap-rock tag, beatboxes (or tries to) through the otherwise engaging cut, which, above the “umps” and “ahs,” features a solid falsetto from MC Britt. “All the Pretty Girls Go to the City” has a nice mocking tone, but otherwise Kill the Moonlight‘s second half falls short of the first. Still, a definite improvement over Girls Can Tell.
Daniel and Conor Oberst (aka Omaha singer-songwriter Bright Eyes) collaborated on the four-song Home: Split EP Series Vol. IV. “Let the Distance Keep Us Together,” co-written by the pair but sung by Daniel, is the limited-run disc’s one keeper. The melody is simultaneously catchy, cheerful, wistful and spellbinding, and Daniel, accompanied by acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums, delivers it with perfect conviction.
Daniel has also recorded solo as Drake Tungsten (named for a Swedish wrestler) and in the arch glam-rock combo Golden Millennium.