To celebrate the first new Spoon album in four years, we’re re-running this Britt Daniel appreciation from October 18, 2012. -ed.
A few weeks after the release of A Thing Called Divine Fits – a record that, if you’ve visited BYT in the last twenty four hours, you already know claims Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner as proud parents – I asked a friend for his take on it. He shrugged, looked off disinterestedly at some nothingness on the other side of the room, and said, “I don’t know. It sounds like Spoon.” I stared blankly at him, my mind racing in the five directions, each a different way I wanted to pick that statement apart. “Huh. Interesting,” I mustered. That’s usually my go-to when I’m trying to avoid saying, “That’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”
Perhaps that’s a bit of an overreaction, in which case I’m sorry that I’m not sorry. I take on very little semblance of objectivity when it comes to discussing Spoon. But I will pose one question: What exactly does Spoon sound like? Yes, there are some commonalities in how Britt Daniel approaches a song, how he manipulates open space, the verve of his bass lines, how he can make the simplest introduction of a tambourine sound like a bass drop. Or as Nick Mirov put it: “You can hear a simple, forceful drumbeat, a barked syllable, a quick strum of the guitar, or the crackling note of a dying keyboard, and immediately identify it as a sound created by Spoon.” It’s worth noting that Mirov wrote that a dozen years ago – before even Girls Can Tell had seem the light of day – and it still holds true, but let’s give credit to the fact that over six albums, Spoon has rarely, if ever, repeated itself.
Each Spoon album has a distinct personality, an angle, an objective: A Series of Sneaks, the feisty collection of Wire-y, seemingly tossed-off Nuggets from a bunch of “faux punks,” as the band is billed in the liner notes; Girls Can Tell, a moody, piano-driven, nighttime LP; Kill the Moonlight, a minimalistic freak of an album; Gimme Fiction, a muscular, rollicking, rhythm-riding rock record; Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the 60s/70s AM pop kaleidoscope that brought Spoon to the masses; and Transference, an ambient, discordant, cold blowback to its predecessor, and maybe the band’s success at large. Even within these albums – save the jam-heavy Gimme Fiction and Transference – you’ll find a remarkable range. In a testament to that, and our love of Spoon, BYT got together, rounded up some friends, and decided to dish on some of our favorite Spoon songs. If Britt Daniel started fifteen other supergroups and they all “sounded like Spoon,” you wouldn’t hear any grumbling here.
“Small Stakes” by Philip Runco
A Spoon record declares its intentions within its opening moments. In those few seconds, you get a pretty clear idea of where everything is headed, and given the band’s penchant for creatively swerving off any one trajectory, it’s a revelatory moment.* The first time you hear “Small Stakes”, its introductory beat sputtering out the left side of your headphone, greeted by a propulsive organ that never lets up over three minutes, you should realize that Kill the Moonlight isn’t going to be anything like the Spoon records that preceded it, or, in retrospect, anything that has followed. It is a freak of an album, stripped of everything that isn’t essential to the song. I read a review once that likened it to a game of Jinga, and that pretty much nailed it. Kill the Moonlight isn’t my favorite Spoon record. It’s my favorite record, period.
So, here we have “Small Stakes” – a song that surprisingly crushes live – but you can’t go wrong with anything from Kill the Moonlight. “Stay Don’t Go” is a clinic on economy of sound and delayed gratification: over the hiccup of Daniel’s ridiculous beatbox beat, piano keys, a tambourine, and disorienting sound effects unexpectedly from the sky like a scene in “Punch-Drunk Love”, only to disappear just as quickly. The whole album is a sonic treasure trove: the iconic clicking drum sticks of minimal masterpiece “Paper Tiger”, the propulsive stomp and breakdown of “Back to the Life”, the way the guitar on “Something to Look Forward To” keeps reaching out and snapping back into place like an elastic band. Honestly, there are too many to name. In regard to the album’s ambition, maybe “Small Stakes” was a red herring: “Me and my friends sell ourselves short, but feel very well,” Daniels sing on the track. Frankly, that’s bullshit.
*The one exception is “Don’t Make Me A Target” – a slightly refashioned Gimme Fiction holdover that sounds exactly like you would expect a Gimme Fiction holdover to – but I’d suggest that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was intended to be Spoon’s grabbag record, a stylistically scattered summary of strengths, so to speak, and as such, any one song isn’t going to be able to capture that.
“Written in Reverse” by Andrew Hamilton
Spoon has a number of songs where piano takes the lead – most notably “The Way We Get By” – but one of my favorites is this lead single from 2010’s under-appreciated Transference. The song opens like a knife fight, as a two chord piano stomp and jagged guitar licks stab at each other while Britt snarls ferociously at an unrequited love. His voice drips with a resigned bitterness, coolly singing “The light bulbs gone out/ I’ve seen it in your eyes/ I’ve seen you blankly stare/ I want to show you how I love you, but there’s nothing there” before erupting into a guttural howl on the chorus. The song encapsulates everything I’ve come to enjoy from Britt – good old-fashioned R&B/Soul-inspired Rock, tightly wound nervous tension, and the occasional explosive outburst of controlled chaos.
“Black Like Me” by Eric Rohleder (Cordial Wine)
Like the Chupacabra or the Great White Buffalo, “Black Like Me” is a mythology. Talk to the tale teller and he’ll give you all the insights. He’s the creepy one in the corner with a 6-string and the black button-down.
Pretty sure Britt is waiting for some sort of last call. Just so he and we can get the hell out of that weird group of kids that are still being entertained. But that last call is only a mythology, ’cause no one is gonna turn those damn lights on at all.
Best split while we can and go get weird elsewhere.
“I Summon You” by Svetlana Legetic
If you think about it, 2005 was a pretty great (and pretty diverse) year for what we blanket call indie music. Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, Ladytron, Sufjan, New Pornographers, The Decemberists, Broadcast, CYHSY, Clientele: They all released their probably most memorable albums that year (and trust me – the list goes on). And I loved every single one of them. “Bought the CDs, brought the CDs into people’s cars, sang-along-on-top-of-my-lungs-at-random-parts-of-day-and-night” kind of loved, not the 20teens’ “cool-can-you-send-me-that-MP3-I’d-love-to-check-it-out” kind of loved. And yet – years later, whenever Spoon’s Gimme Fiction comes on, I get goosebumps a little more than with some of those other records. The whole record is a hit, top to bottom, imho, and should be studied in Indie Rock 101 classes till the end of time, but “I Summon You” is a personal favorite (if only by a hair). On a record where Britt & Co decided to sort of try a little bit of everything (because, well, they could), push guitars back to the forefront, go big and anthemic on a fair amount of their choruses and even employ some bombastic piano here and there, this song is so spare, so cleverly stripped of all excess that it is a marvel, really. It also fully capitalizes on the slight but definite cult leader vibe Britt has been cultivating since forever, which is, whether you like to admit it or not-a big reason why we love him. With nothing but his gravelly voice at the forefront, the lyrics oddly ominous (there are cages, and law enforcements, and the weight of the world are all tossed around and announced all too clearly) it is that rare song about things falling apart (“How’d we get here/it’s too late to break it off) that still ends with a quick burst of light (as he summons you to appear, HIS love).
I’ll stop typing now, because we should all just listen to it RIGHT NOW. Goosebumps guaranteed (or you’re dead inside/and to me).
“The Ghost of You Lingers” by Ryan Reyna
Matt: So I’m at CMJ walking to the next show and I see a guy that looks like Britt Daniels and I tell him that.
Me: What’d he say?
Matt: “That’s funny, because I am Britt Daniels”
Me: No shit
Matt: Yeah, I didn’t believe him either, but he whipped out his Texas license and showed it to me. [Pause] Britt Daniels is fucking cool.
In the summer of 2007, Britt Daniel and his lanky, Texas-by-way-of-Motown, white boy swagger were fucking cool. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga had been released that July and, suddenly, Spoon was everywhere. This mostly on account of “The Underdog”. In fact, my girlfriend and I used to guess the over/under on the number of times the “indie” station on satellite radio would play it during the course of one trip. It’s a great song, but, to me, “The Underdog” doesn’t quite speak fully to why Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Britt Daniel – and, by extension, Spoon – were and are so cool.
The piano is why they are so cool. And “The Ghost of You Lingers” is all about the piano, so much so that its sound lends the album its title. From the moment the first ivory is twinkled, you sense tension in the song, and it never fades away. That Deadwood-era barroom piano starts jangling and all of the sudden Britt’s familiar “ohhs” hit you from outer space like a new age Bowie. I’ve never quite figured out whether he’s playing out a real argument or just projecting how he thinks such an argument would go, but he’s pissed and he’s scared. He moans: “I had a nightmare nothing could be put back together.” That piano never gives him a place to hide, and he doesn’t look for one.
At one point during my first drive between DC and Austin, my dad was taking his turn behind the wheel and I was placed in charge of music. I put on Girls Can Tell. About half way through the record, he asked me how I could like songs that didn’t change their structure throughout their runtimes. He argued that it was boring to just hear the same chords repeated over and over. I still can’t listen to a Spoon album without thinking about that conversation. I’m not sure I’ve ever really formulated a good answer, but I think it comes down to the fact that there’s no place to hide for a singer-songwriter in that situation.
Britt is way too cool to hide.
“Anything You Want” by Eamon Redmond
In hindsight, I’m surprised that this song wasn’t Spoon’s big break, before “The Way We Get By” introduced the band a larger audience. Yeah, it’s break-up song, but there’s a pretty up-beat vibe. It should have been featured in a romantic comedy – right at the point where Reese Witherspoon and Actor X realize that they are meant to be together. Squandered opportunities aside, this is one of the best depictions I’ve heard of someone looking back at a failed relationship. There may not be a better way to describe the feeling of ambivalence that comes with moving forward than, “Time is my time/Time is my own/I feel so alive/Yet feel so alone.”
“The Underdog” by Stephanie Breijo
It’s an obvious pick, I’m well aware. But if I had to overlook the song I still dance to alone in my car on a bi-monthly basis for the sake of looking “cool,” well, you can guess I threw that out the window with my pride while flailing, clapping, punching the air and beating my steering wheel multiple times a month. I can’t help it; something about the sheer positivity of this song really gets me–and that horn section!–making it hard to feel bummed about just about anything. When Daniel coos “It can’t all be wedding cake / It can’t all be boiled away” and even addresses mortality to the tune of something so musically uplifting, it serves as a reminder that these things happen; unhappiness and old age and arrogance and those constantly posing for the “photo op,” those cheering for the popular opinion, are a part of life but that doesn’t mean you can’t rise above it. It’s the quintessential anthem for the fighter; hear the call of a lifetime ring and get up for it because that’s the only way to get free.
“Spent on Rainy Days” by Philip Runco
Though Divine Fits may help to dispel the notion, Britt Daniel has always had a bit of a reputation as a loner. He didn’t work with a whole lot of other musicians over the past fifteen years. In interviews, he’d talk about spending weeks in distant towns, holed up alone in shitty motels, tweaking Spoon demos. Meanwhile, my friends in Austin would often be enjoying an evening out at bars when, from the corner of their eyes, he would emerge, always from some shadow, always by himself. “Creepy Britt Daniel” they would come to call him. And, ok, I’ll just say it: Britt Daniel might be a vampire. That ashen complexion, those ever present sunglasses, the unwillingness to smile and reveal his teeth: It all adds up, people.
The only thing that forces me to reconsider this conclusion, that challenges this pattern of behavior, is a little nothing of an EP that Daniel recorded with fellow indoor kid Conor Oberst in April of 2002. It had throwaway written all over it: an anemic thirteen-minute effort limited to 2000 copies, part four in a series split of EPs organized by the totally unknown Post-Parlo Records. But these weren’t stale b-sides microwaved and slapped on a new plate. No, the great recluse had flown up to Nebraska, and in Oberst’s basement recorded an EP that made Bright Eyes and Spoon sound like a perfectly logical, almost inevitable, pairing.
Closer “Let the Distance Bring Us Together” is probably the highlight of the EP, a wet kiss of a love song that is unquestionably the warme and fuzziest (and most jangly) thing Daniel has ever recorded. When Oberst jumps on the “do-do-do-do” harmonies at the end and is joined by a choir of Daniels, the effect is just sublime. I have nightmares where all of my ex-girlfriends gather for a drink and in the course of conversation realize that they all got this song on a mixtape at some point.
But, I chose opener “Spent on Rainy Days” here, largely because it may be a bigger testament to Daniel’s talent: All it took him was a couple of days in Omaha to make a Bright Eyes song sound completely badass. Do you know how difficult that is? I bet Daniel couldn’t get out of bed for days afterwards, utterly drained like Sam Wheat after spending too much ghost energy possessing Oda Mae Brown’s body. Listen to this thing! Its first twenty seconds pass by like a typical Bright Eyes Open Mic Night strummer, but soon enough Daniel’s bass line drunkenly lumbers into the bar. “Oh me?” it says. ” I’m just here to start shit.” Moments later, Daniel’s silvery, snaking lead guitar rips the whole joint from its foundation. As the song continues, Daniel goads Oberst, pushing him towards a hysterical finale that feels oddly justified. All of this, in two minutes.
“Everything Hits at Once” by Andrew Hamilton
The opener to Spoon’s third album, Girls Can Tell, “Everything Hits At Once” signaled a new direction for the band, one that saw them turning down their guitars in favor of keyboards and tighter, sparse arrangements. Built around mellotron and vibraphone, the song creates a distinctly moody and nocturnal backdrop for Britt to unleash his frustration, regret, and loneliness on a relationship gone sour. Melodic flourishes linger and hang in the nighttime air, further accentuating the tension and isolation hinted at with lines like “Don’t say a word/the last one’s still stinging” and “I go to sleep/and think/that you’re next to me.” For someone with a habit of writing vague and cryptic lyrics, Britt has rarely been this honest and direct. Taken alongside its companion piece and album closer “Chicago At Night”, the songs set the tone for what is, personally, my favorite Spoon record.
“Metal Detektor” by Eamon Redmond
“Metal Detektor” is a quintessential Britt Daniel song. It has all of the hallmarks: vague background distortion; steady guitar and bass lines, mixed with minor chord undertones; and an organ that helps keep the melancholic aura of the song together. As Britt moans along while the song ends, you can feel the desperation of a man driven to rob a bank.
“My Mathematical Mind” by Stephanie Breijo
There is nothing off of Gimme Fiction that matches the rhythmic pulsing of “My Mathematical Mind.” It’s as if everyone in the band decided to throw their full weight into the beat, forming a tight foundation for Britt Daniel’s chiding lyrics and vocal improvisations (“no, no, go, no, go rrrrrrride! the brakes”). It’s severe in the most intriguing way imaginable, which is fitting for a song that chastises the darkness of someone always planning for the worst–a dramatic subject in itself, mirrored by musicianship that feels almost weighted in its delivery. (And, to be fair, when have we all needed to be shaken by the shoulders and reminded that no, being habitually pessimistic doesn’t make you look intelligent; it makes you look like an asshole). In moments of crescendo, the whole band punches like a tornado; Daniel’s guitar screeches and scratches, the strings whirl and swoop and the drums crash around you. It’s moments like these where Spoon really display their expert musicianship – not only do they weather the storm, they create it.
“Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now” / “The Agony of Laffitte” by Philip Runco
Oh, what I would give to have been in the room the first – and, I’d venture to say, only – time Ron Laffitte listened to Spoon’s “The Agony of Laffitte”/”Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now” single. Actually, as I imagine it, any nearby room would have been good enough to hear Laffitte’s reaction when he popped this CD into his state of the art sound system – Dolby Digital, like in the movies – and heard one the greatest kiss offs ever set to music. I can see him sitting in his plush Italian leather desk chair – yeah, it was a little expensive to have imported, but totally worth it – and half paying attention as Daniel strummed through two otherwise pleasant songs, and then slowly starting to realize that these songs have one simple message, and that message is “Fuck you, Ron Laffitte.”
Now, I don’t know Ron Laffitte. He could be a nice guy. He could always be sure to never take up more than one parking spot. He could perpetually be on the shortlist for his local United Way’s Humanitarian of the Year Award. I’m strictly going on what Daniel tell us here, and that leads me to the believe that Ron Laffitte is a slimy and utter dick. As the legends goes, Laffitte signed Spoon to Elektra Records and promised to steer the band to success, only to quit the label four months after A Series of Sneaks was released, leaving Spoon in the lurch and, a week later, dropped from the label. Or, as Daniel described it on “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Know”: “The aftermath of promotion / It’s time to take the trash out / And redefining what you are / Redefining what you’re about.” Does Daniel sound raw about it? Yeah, a little. “Oh no, I want to know / Are you honest with anyone? / Oh tell me, don’t tell yourself / Are you ever honest with anyone?” he taunts. More chilling are Daniel’s words on the single’s counterpart, “The Agony of Laffitte”: “So when you do that line tonight / Remember that it came at a steep price.”
Laffitte’s done pretty well for himself in the time since this single was released in 1999 – his Laffitte Management Group was purchased, in part, by Live Nation last year – and he probably doesn’t give two shits about this song. But he can’t scrub it from his record, and if just once, some band considering signing to his management group Googles his name, finds this song, and questions that decision, all will be right in the universe. Thanks to Merge Records’ inclusion of the single on its reissue of A Series of Sneaks, that just might happen.
“I Turn My Camera On” by Sivan Jacobovitz (Farewell Republic)
I’d call myself a casual Spoon fan, so I’m picking their most famous song. This also happens to be an awesome song. I used to listen to it in the car while in high school. I saw them play at Prospect Park in Brooklyn when I was 20. I got free tickets because my friend was interning at the show, and I took Gus, who had just produced our first EP, as a thank you. It was a really good show. No one really grooves like Spoon does live. Gus pointed out that the drummer was playing to a click track. That offended my DC sensibilities a bit until he told me that lots of big bands do it. Since then, I’ve always noticed when drummers are playing to a click live. I have no problem with drummers playing to clicks. I also saw them open for the Arcade Fire at Merriweather. I took my 12 year-old sister. It was her first rock concert. They covered a Wolf Parade song and it was really good. One of my friends from college told me that he ran into Britt Daniel at a diner outside a Spoon show in Chicago and Britt big-timed him. These are my Spoon stories.