Art is an ark

photo (3)There’s Spoon and then there’s everything else in contemporary music. When Parquet Courts released Light Up Gold, after a few listens, I thought: hm, look out, Spoon. I emailed the hosts of Sound Opinions praising them for ranking the Parquet Courts debut as one of the brightest moments in music last year. Yet I regret to confess that I actually ended that email with the something like the following words, knowing Jim and Greg love Spoon: “Move over, Spoon. There’s a new sheriff in town.” (Me with my giddy crush on “Master of My Craft”.) Though the second effort from Parquet Courts has a few tracks that rank with the best from Light Up Gold, in general it left me a little crestfallen. It sounded as if they were being petulantly difficult, upping the noise and monotony—which worked on their first album. Now they sound as if they’re daring you to not to like them—just to prove they didn’t care if anybody would pay to hear them assert their defiant low-fi integrity. I still love them on principle, but I’m not as in love with them now, if you know what I’m saying. (I once had a pet theory that Sinead O’Conner shaved her head because she was too beautiful to get taken seriously with a full head of hair.) In other words, PC seems to be pushing back against the risks of popularity they know they might achieve if they upped the production quality to Spoon level—which they do perfectly, just to show you they can, on one or two tracks from Sunbathing Animals. If Parquet Courts would just relax and make the irresistibly gut-punching music they know how to make, pop-punk songs offset by complex, poetic lyrics, in such a seemingly effortless way, imagine a concert where they would open for Spoon. Who could top that?

That’s a long way to say They Want My Soul may have already become my favorite Spoon album. Better than anyone recording music right now, Spoon is concocting the most sophisticatedly beautiful songs that also invite your limbic brain to the shindig. They split the difference between The Beatles and The Replacements. (Britt Daniel put it another way once: “Marvin Gaye meets Iggy Pop.”) After nearly twenty years of recording, Spoon keeps going for the brass ring: they are trying to be a timelessly great rock band, as if such a thing were possible anymore, given music’s incredible fragmentation and the inescapable obscurity so many great musical artists face. (There are great bands now, but are they rock bands?) Spoon keeps defying its era, dissecting old rock and roll songs and assembling new ones, unpacking new sounds from old ones. Daniels once listened to Revolver on repeat, until (as I like to imagine it) the memory of it was playing involuntarily in his head day and night. I read somewhere that he had an exasperated girlfriend who asked him, “Does it always have to be about rock and roll?” I visualize her on her way out the door with Daniel calling out, sotto voce, to himself really, with a smile of relief on his face, “All the plants are gonna die!” Spoon is living on the same corner as Lennon and McCartney or R.E.M.—hoping to be popular because they are brilliantly good. Critics back around the time of Gimme Fiction were predicting Spoon could break out and do exactly what R.E.M did: achieve big popularity and still win critical raves. I don’t get the impression they are immensely popular, even though you can hear them in all sorts of unexpected places. They are still near the top of every critic’s list. I can’t even find the new album on the Billboard rankings. Too soon? Am I looking at the wrong list? I feel like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer when I venture onto that website. I’m a little more at home on Pitchfork, but not that much. On the other hand, so many of my friends don’t get it. They listen and shrug or they actively don’t like Spoon. It’s as if I’m surrounded by people who have secretly agreed to pretend they despise motherhood or beer or Abe Lincoln.

I discovered Spoon about a decade ago. My son, Matt, was in the house, getting ready to head somewhere with his friends. Outside, I walked up to his friend Al Swinburne, in the driver’s seat of his car in our suburban driveway, where he was running the engine, a couple other friends in the back. My wife and I had known all of them since they were in kindergarten, give or take a year or two. As we caught up with one another, in the mix Al was playing I heard those first gorgeous carousel-like organ notes from “Anything You Want.” I kept talking, but not for long. About thirty seconds into it, I shut up and said, “Who is that.”  He said, “A band called Spoon.” I got more and more thrilled by what I was hearing, and he said, “My brother let Britt Daniel crash in his Boston apartment for a couple weeks.” Shortly thereafter, I told my son, Matt, “Listen to this.” He and I drove to Cleveland to hear them at the Beachland Ballroom, getting there early, standing at the edge of the stage. Matt jumped up and stole the set list afterward, and now, nine years later, I still have it on my wall.  What a dork.

Thanks to Al and Ian, I was a Spoon disciple before anyone knew Gimme Fiction was on the way, which is when the band started getting attention in the mainstream press. Anything You Want remains my favorite Spoon song, and after ten years, when it starts playing, it sounds just as fresh, as innocent, as joyful as when I heard it in my driveway—a song I believe could have shot up the charts in the 60s, even though it was composed and recorded decades later. A couple others are right up there with it, in my list of all-time favorites: “The Figures of Art,” which is its equal for all the same reasons, and “The Fitted Shirt”(which was side-by-side with “Anything You Want” on Girls Can Tell, for one of the all-time greatest one-two punches of pop rock and roll), and now “Rainy Taxi”andLet Me Be Mine.” (I would include “Like Ice Cream,” from Daniel’s stint with Divine Fits.) As About 1:50 into “Rainy Taxi,” Spoon briefly hits its cruising altitude and seems to achieve the musical equivalent of perpetual motion. (Parquet Courts rides that same tailwind in “Master of My Craft” at around 2:16 after the best line from the album, “Socrates died in the fucking gutter!” Innocent joy isn’t part of the bargain with PQ. But it’s a funny line.) Bottom line: half a century after The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and established rock and roll as the only music that was going to matter for a long time, Spoon is keeping the pure heart of it alive in ways no other band seems to be attempting with the same intensity.

Spoon samples from the past in its own way. They’ve internalized what’s great, and they try to do it justice by making something new that measures up to it. They’re traditionalists, not obedient to what’s preceded them, but dedicated to liberating new opportunities from inside earlier practices. They have absorbed, if not memorized, a large portion of pop music from the past half century, starting, I think, with songs recorded the year Eno was born, 1966, and then picking and choosing from various tracks ever since, seeking a path forward for a new tune by dissecting the way bands tackled musical challenges half a century ago. Or just a few years ago: Daniel was studying Dr. Dre from 2001 while Spoon was making the new disk. It’s a perfect fit: he and Dre worship a certain kind of restrained beat, and they’re both minimalists, getting the most from the smallest quantity of sound. The perfectionism of that cushiony soundproof studio texture—it’s there in the best work of both artists.

Spoon always sounds like Spoon, but you hear echoes of dozens of influences from one song to the next. As a New York Times writer put it, they build songs the way a magpie builds its nest, drawing materials from all over the place. Like a great DJ, they’ll grab the core of a previous song, the beat and the rhythm of a few notes, and spin something completely new from it. “Got Nuffin” and “Rainy Taxi” both begin by echoing the rhythm and guitar textures of “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group. The opening of “Got Nuffin,” at the same time, evokes 25 or 6 to 4 by Chicago, and then moves on to become something completely different. One lone blogger, a while back, pointed out that the first few bars of “The Fitted Shirt” sound a lot like the opening for a lesser-known track from Heartexcept the Spoon track seems much harder to get a fix on, in a good way, as if two time signatures have been superimposed, one for the drums and the other for the melody. It’s typical: the opening seconds of a Spoon song can sound instantly familiar, even if they’re entirely original, and then the song becomes what it is—not a pastiche or a cover, but a reworking and discovery of the untapped potential still coiled in an earlier work. Tear Me Down always feels to me like a track that didn’t make it onto Let It Bleed. Daniel said that he immersed himself in both Revolver and the soundtrack for the remake of Solaris when the band was recording Gimme Fiction.

Spoon songs don’t wear out for me. After ten years of listening, some of the earliest are still fresh. I’ve found some of the most lasting tracks in their catalog for me can be found on their first recordings: Telephono and Series of Sneaks. They’re raw, minimal, and physically aggressive, essentially punk, and yet the sound of each instrument is exquisite and rich and there’s a quietness that hovers in the songs, as it usually does with Spoon ever since, isolating each instrument and voice. Hi-fi punk. No crumbly low-fi distortion anywhere. The sound of a Spoon song is something Daniel and Eno work themselves to death to get right—there isn’t a note where they don’t intend for it to be and the sound is usually both lush and roughly commanding. The production values get massaged until it feels as if the entire song has turned your skull into a soundproof studio. The purity of the sound is sacrosanct.

Yet, on some of the new tracks, depending on the system I’m using to play it, the loudest tones seem to thin out and get brittle and too crispy, as if the microphones can’t handle the volume so that even certain layers of the track on the CD sound like an mp3. I noticed this on one of the best songs from Transcendence, “Trouble Comes Running.” It felt like something I was hearing through the single center speaker in the dashboard of a 1964 Chevy, before there was eight-track. The effect is more pronounced and more common throughout the new album if I’m listening on an iPod shuffle, but even the best stereo doesn’t deliver “Rent I Pay” at the same level of quality as anything on Gimme Fiction. On the older recordings, the guitars, piano, organ, bass, drums, all sound as if they’re playing at mid-volume in the studio, no matter how much you crank it up—the tones of guitar, snare drum, cymbals, are all pure and distinct and full-bodied. I don’t get this impression on some of the great songs here: “Rent I Pay,” “They Want My Soul,” “New York Kiss.” Ostensibly, the outside producer they brought in likes his tracks “distorted and dirty” so maybe that’s what’s happening. My son doesn’t hear it, but it lets me down, just a little, every time I play those tracks. It’s puzzling. It’s my only cavil: everything used to be perfect, at a Dr. Dre level, in a great Spoon song, and this could be the strongest album they’ve ever recorded, and yet on these few stand-outs they seem to be messing with the formula.

Since the 80s, I’ve purchased only two vinyl LPs: Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight. I haven’t broken the seal on either those disks. You see, I don’t own my old turntable anymore, and I haven’t bought a new one. They sit, unopened, like a pair of time capsules, under an antique table, awaiting their first listen. Some day, I’ll actually buy and set up a turntable and play them. Until then those purchases represent a pledge of allegiance, a ritual of faith, more than an act of consumerism. I’m sad to report that I download almost all the music I buy now, or just queue it up on Spotify much of the time, and yet I still buy each new Spoon album on disk. When I listen to most new music, I’m invariably doing something else. When the latest Spoon arrives, once again the world is just as it was on the day Sgt. Pepper’s came out or when I brought home the 45, in its little paper sleeve, with Paperback Writer on the A side and Rain on the B. (That, by the way, was the greatest one-two punch in rock and roll history.) Not long after it arrives, I carry a new Spoon CD to the best stereo in the house, slice it open, and start playing it, while sitting on the carpet a certain distance from my old Boston Acoustic floor speakers and my cheap subwoofer, with dials I keep adjusting for each song. I actually stare at the music, as if I were watching a movie. I do nothing but listen. I listen and remember what music once was, and what it is, right now, at least while Spoon is playing.

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