Spoon Transference

[Merge; 2010]

Styles: indie rock
Others: Tapes ‘n Tapes, Yo La Tengo, Interpol

I’d imagine that Spoon must be pretty sick of hearing how much they’ve always sounded like Spoon by now. With each of their albums this past decade, the notion that Britt Daniel and co. have been repeatedly airing out the same (very good) brand of rock ’n’ roll has been widespread enough to edge the outlines of a consensus. Even though few critics cared for the band prior to 2001’s Girls Can Tell, Magnet heralded the third LP’s success as a continuation of their reliable “stock in trade.” Pitchfork asserted that the following year’s Kill the Moonlight progressed by “tak[ing] a scalpel to the highlight reel of their career,” cutting and pasting themselves into a magnum opus. 2005’s Gimme Fiction found Cokemachineglow marveling at “how singular they sound” after five albums. And Entertainment Weekly summarized 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga as “one of those ’taking stock’ records that collates and refines everything that came before.” I’ll spare you snippets of message board chatter and Last.fm shoutbox debates, but suffice it to say that Spoon’s reputation as a band of continual self-revision and -refinement is one that has trickled down to man-on-the-street fans and skeptics alike.

That said, few have ever complained about Spoon’s delicate balance of the fresh and the familiar, and the reviews mentioned above are the kind of glowing appraisals that have made them, by Metacritic’s calculations, the most acclaimed band of the past decade. But it’s worth pointing out that, while Spoon unquestionably possess a unique and singular vision of rock as a minimalist artform, they have never repeated themselves. A survey of their very best material reveals a breadth of formal and stylistic diversity that is practically panoramic, whether we’re talking about the breezy Casio summer pop of “Anything You Want,” the serpentine rock epic that is “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” or the paradoxically boundless and claustrophobic dimension of sound known as “Paper Tiger” (a noirish, streetlit ballad unlike anything else, in Spoon’s repertoire or anybody else’s). Sure, it’s possible to connect the dots between the short, wiry rock barbs of a record like A Series of Sneaks and the strange lo-fi microcosm of Get Nice! or the occasional B-side demo — but it ain’t easy. It’s Spoon’s ability to be readily recognizable as themselves, no matter whose clothes they’re trying on — from the wardrobes of 60s pop, 70s Jamaican dub, 80s post-punk, or 90s college rock — that seems to make them such a consistently compelling band.

Which is why Daniel’s recent claim that Transference is “the most that we’ve sounded like us yet” is a bit of a head-scratcher — although after a few spins I think I know what he means. If it’s true that Kill the Moonlight was a scalpel’d assemblage of all previous Spoon up to 2002, and Ga a careful collation of all Spoons in existence by 2007, then Transference is the sound of Spoon saying hello to the new decade with a ruddy old blender. In goes the angry young identity crises of their earliest work, the spare menace and economy of their middle period, and the lush, hi-fi ornamentation of their most recent (and expensive) trips to the studio, with the unsettling murk of all the home demos along the way thrown in for good measure (quite literally — the band claims that a good portion of Transference uses elements of what most bands this big would call their pre-production). Emboldened by years of hard work and subsequent pay-off, they tell longtime producer Mike McCarthy with a dismissive wave that they know what they’re doing by now, and begin playing around with the settings. Chop, Combine, Pulse, Beat — ignoring the smoother blends and elegant accents of settings like Frappé or Purée because, as Daniel told AOL a couple months back, they wanted something a little “uglier” this time out.

It’s appropriate, then, that the end result is the most cinematic of all their albums. Spoon has always struck me as an unusually visual band: Ga feels like a collection of paintings, Sneaks a set of sculptures, Fiction a photo album, Kill a collage. Living up to its name quite nicely, Transference sends all those static, finished works swirling around into motion, creating something that sounds transitory and forever incomplete. It’s an album of hard cuts, out-of-focus shots, alternate endings: plenty of songs transition or end abruptly, the majority of them indulge in wide-angle instrumental jams that serve as wordless soundtrack for minutes at a time, and almost all of them thrive on the textural tension of juxtaposed fidelities. Jim Eno’s sharp toms and hi-hat are the first thing you hear on the record, in the opening bars of “Before Destruction,” but the way they contrast against the fuzzy synths and harsh acoustic scrapes that soon appear is the first thing you really notice. Eno’s kit sounds like ten grand, but Daniel and Eric Harvey’s contributions sound cheap as an old Tascam. And the mumbled counterpoint and stop-start echoes of the disorienting second track, “Is Love Forever?,” sound like the contrapuntal montage of an Eisenstein film vis-à-vis rock ’n’ roll.

That’s just the kind of delicious friction Transference trades in, making you wanna grit your teeth and open wide for the next morsel at the same time. Structurally speaking, it’s Spoon’s most playfully confounding work yet: lead single “Written in Reverse” goes through a series of unexpected twists and turns before masterfully faking its own death, and “I Saw The Light” grafts together the incompatible tempos of a dark, two-minute guitar rocker and an even darker three-minute piano jam in a way that’s bound to startle. The way the Kraut-y rhythms and phased backing vocals of “The Mystery Zone” cut out mid-sentence after five perplexing minutes feels as if Daniel is playing a little joke on his listeners — especially those listening off a downloaded leak. (In this sense, Spoon might have hit upon their best album cover yet: the sharply-dressed, sly-eyed little miscreant on the front makes for a great indication of what’s inside.)

But even after repeat listens, the record’s formal stunts and deep-background details are just about all there is to really sustain one’s attention. All these things lend themselves to moments of brilliance, to be sure: the way Daniel’s hummed melody becomes one with a half-buried cello in “Goodnight Laura” makes for a White Album-worthy ballad; the fine-detail development of “I Saw The Light”’s outro recalls modern French electro’s slow build and violent subtlety; and “Who Makes Your Money” and “Nobody Gets Me But You” are a couple of studio-reliant stunners that will certainly prove difficult to adapt for the stage. But it seems that, in blending together the ghosts of Spoons past, Transference winds up rather middling, full of ambiance and atmosphere but lacking the first-rate songwriting at the heart of Daniel’s best work. There is no underdog, paper tiger, beast, or dragon to adore here, and even discounting the two total clunkers — “Got Nuffin” and “Trouble Comes Running” — this record loses blow-for-blow against any of its four sterling predecessors. Transference offers up several solid additions to the Spoon canon and setlist, but narrowly misses living up to its pedigree.

Links: Spoon - Merge

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