When I initially learned of the new Spoon album, Transference, I was not so excited to go out and get it. Gagagagaga was a good recording, but I felt like my relationship with the band had ended there. We would remain friends, acting cordially towards each other at gatherings, but never rekindle the magic we once had. Really, it was that live show that did it. Spoon’s albums are well crafted in my favorite sense. The sounds are not too polished, the arrangements kind of stripped down, the groove is always good, and the melody always obvious yet not too in your face. Its got a minimalist thing that I love. The guitars always sounded great. “Commercial Appeal” was a fantastic track, go listen to that just for posterity then we’ll continue.
But a few years back they played Terminal 5, and I was left so unsatisfied that I had trouble listening to the band afterwards. It was not as if they were horrible, or even sub-par, they were really just….par. Nothing jumped out at me, its like they weren’t connecting with the audience. And maybe its unfair to judge a band based on one show, but it just left me feeling uncomfortable. So Spoon records went unplayed on my ipod, new of the band went overlooked by my short blog related attention span.
But this morning while listening to the Sound Opinions Podcast (a great podcast which I highly recommend from Greg Kot and Jim DeRegotis from Chicago) they reviewed the new Spoon album. I heard some clips, and the fire was re-ignited. They claimed the tunes were more stripped down than on Gagagagaga, no fancy horn arrangements or attempts at pop masterpieces, just a straight ahead kind of artsy minimal rock record. Well Jim and Greg, lets have at it. I went through the morning considering the options of how to purchase (or illegally download) and made a decision. Normally, such decisions would be kept between Trent Reznor and I, but I bought it through iTunes, strictly because it came with a Digital Booklet.
This is one of the most overlooked concepts in the digital download world. Why does every album not include one? Its not like there are any extra printing costs, you’re just including a .pdf file with the artwork. It really gives a context to an album. The greatest thing that everyone misses about the CD and even Vinyl days is the artwork and liner notes. Its a little insight into the feel of an album, perhaps even some notes from the band. For tech junkies like me, I love to see where it was recorded, or if i know the engineer or any guest musicians. Maybe some in studio photos? I’m getting nostalgic just thinking about it. But anyway, whats keeping this from being included with every album on iTunes? For real, I would like to know. Someone get Steve Jobs on the phone, patch him through to my secretary, I’ll be in meetings until after lunch.
It turns out this album was self produced. I like the sound of that, to me that says “we had success with our last release, now we’re just going to do what we want, we’ve already got your money, so lets enjoy ourselves” whether this is true or not, I can only speculate, but the album delivers that feel. It sounds like it was recorded in 4 days, with not too much attention paid to detail (that’s a good thing). Songs end abruptly or with a quick fade, delays and other effects seem hastily piled on, orchestrations are minimal and song structure is simple. It was moving in the right direction. Overall, this is a Bass and Drums record. I can barely remember one interesting guitar part, yet all the drum and bass parts connected instantly. Some great fuzzed out bass tones, some punchy Motown style licks, I enjoyed all of it. On the drum side of things, it was like they went into my brain, picked out some ideal drum sounds, and ran back to the studio with them. (Yes, I am accusing Spoon of intellectual thievery, you will be hearing from my imaginary lawyer any moment.) One thing that stands out, is the use of shaker over hi hat. This has been my new goal in life, ever since I listened to Jay Bellerose (T Bone Burnett and Ray Lamontagne’s main drummer.) The snare is always very flat and present, there are no extraneous drum fills, its as if the drums walked in the room where you are currently sitting, greeted you warmly, sat in a chair directly in front of you, and started tapping on your head in a pleasing yet interesting manner.
Lets select some highlights from the record, as we don’t have time to go through the whole thing, we’re all busy people, with important government related business to attend to. Based on initial listening, my favorite tack is “Who Makes Your Money” and not just because I’ve recently really been into AC/DC’s “Money Talks”. It makes use of all my favorite elements, but not just in a trivial way, they all serve the song. Shaker instead of hi hat, incredibly consistent bass line, weird delay on either a guitar or keyboard, very basic etherial sounding melody. The song achieves almost a hypnotic trance feel, its so even and driving that you begin tapping your foot, and maybe even swaying a little bit on the PATH train on your morning commute while the guy in an uncomfortable looking suit sitting in front of you gives you a quizzical look. I’m just sayin in general, not specifically. The song clocks in at just over 3 minutes, there is no messing around. The background vocals have this weird tremelo-delay thing happening, its kind of like if 50’s rockabilly met some dub reggae music. The prechorus breaks down to just bass and drums, a technique I’m very much a fan of- subtraction rather than addition.
One key characteristic tying many of these songs together is the lack of a bridge. This I also support. Don’t just add extra stuff for the sake of adding it. There was that Death Cab For Cutie “Open Door EP” released recently, which featured the fantastic song “My Mirror Speaks”, which might have been one of the best songs ever, had it not included a pointless and distracting bridge. Lets stop this before it gets too far to turn back.
“The Mystery Zone” runs along similar lines as “Who Makes Your Money” with a great consistent feel, almost as if your brain is on autopilot being driven by delay effects, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but lets talk about another song. “Written In Reverse” slams along like a White Album Beatles track, with more soul. Slamming on piano and guitar, with some lower octave background vocals and big distorted bass fills, it all comes together. It might just be one chord for most of the song, which again, I fully support. Its not even a riff, its more of a drone, accented by dynamic changes and sloppy guitar fills.
If there is any immediate criticism, I would say that for such a driving and consistent album in the middle, it starts off kind of hodge–podge with “Before Destruction” which seems to lack a little focus. These days, who cares, we just put the songs we like on our ipods and shuffle away. BUT, since the digital booklet was split up into “side a” and “side b” for the track listing, I am holding Spoon to it. The also include the phrase “buying records at actual record stores is cool” which I respect, even though I bought it on iTunes. Overall, Transference is a solid album, it veers towards the weird side. Its like a giant drone, flavored with some rock music. You’ve won this round Britt, see you next time.
Coming up next week, I’m going to listen to 30 seconds of each track of the most recent Lady Gaga album, which I have never heard, and write stream-of-consciousness for 20 minutes after. What results, is any-one’s guess.