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They Want My Soul: The Musical Wizardry of Spoon

We are all familiar with the stereotype: the music fan who constantly bemoans the non-existence of good, guitar-based rock music in the 2000’s. “Rock is dead,” s/he laments. “Nothing good has been released since the golden age of The Doors, The Rolling Stones, or The Beatles.” For various reasons, large swaths of rock fans are under the impression that rock has been “dead” since the 1970’s or so.

As somewhat of an amateur music enthusiast myself, I could attempt to refute this claim by citing all sorts of modern musical movements. I could easily point to the so-called “garage rock revival” of the early 2000’s, including bands such as The White Stripes, The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Black Keys, and Arctic Monkeys. I could suggest the shadowy guitar heroics of pioneering “stoner-rockers” Queens of the Stone Age, the heavy Zeppelin-worship of Wolfmother, or the swirling neo-psychedelia of Tame Impala. A cursory listen to any of these groups will show that rock is very much alive and flourishing.

But in truth, none of these encyclopedic acrobatics are necessary. Rather, a mere one word will suffice: Spoon.

Spoon is one of those delightful bands whose music can always be counted upon. For over ten years’ and seven albums’ worth of material, they have delivered consistently enjoyable guitar rock. Hailed as “minimalists,” (though they often shun the label), Spoon excels at concocting just the right mix of guitar, drums, piano, reverb, and feedback. A recent profile of the band in The New York Times labeled its members the “molecular gastronomists of rock.”

They always know the perfect moment to throw in a catchy tambourine, the exact second when the bass drum should kick in for maximum adrenaline. Their studio technique is rigorous, focused, and methodical. On the other hand, some of the band’s best work seems to emerge more nonchalantly, as if some mystical force is guiding their perfect collages of sound out of the studio. Singer Britt Daniel muses that some of their best work was produced  almost by accident from one afternoon in the studio.

What it is that makes Spoon’s music so instantly appealing? Spoon sounds like a pretty straightforward rock outfit on first listen: a nice heap of The Kinks mixed with a bit of The Rolling Stones and a pinch of The Pixies. But there is grime and dirt beneath the pristine surface of Spoon; a hint of experimentalism lurks in the background of their music, waiting to pounce. At any moment, the band could burst into an abrasive explosion of squealing guitar feedback, the calm chords dissipating into a distorted torrent of tension. Britt Daniel’s voice leaps instantly from a hushed whisper to a snarling howl. This flirting between the traditional and the avant-garde is what propels the excitement in each song. The listener is again and again caught by surprise.

I recently saw Spoon perform at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. The first opening act, Operators, was somewhat forgettable, but the second openers, dance-punk group !!! (yes, that is their name, which is pronounced ‘chk-chk-chk,’ but can be pronounced by repeating thrice any monosyllabic sound according to the band’s website), set the stage with a throttling set of party vibes. Lead-singer Nic Offer flung his jheri-curl hairdo furiously as he flailed around the stage and unleashed quite the impressive array of goofy dance moves. Clad in short-sleeve button-down and staggeringly short shorts, Offer whipped attendees into a frenzy with his crazed antics; at three different points during the show he descended into the crowd and wound his way through, pausing to dance vigorously with random attendees. His energy was, quite literally, palpable to the audience.

After !!!’s frantic onslaught of a performance, even Spoon felt almost a bit tame in comparison. Opening primarily with newer songs from the excellent They Want My Soul, the band was slightly hampered with volume issues. Throughout the show, I found myself wishing singer Britt Daniel’s snarly vocals were a bit more audible, that the band’s characteristically messy guitar solos would tackle me in the gut harder than they did. Though guitarist Alex Fischel was visibly writhing and throwing himself erratically around the stage as he delivered dirty solo after dirty distorted solo, the sound mix simply did not always translate the urgency of the material. Outdoor venues are notoriously prone to difficult audio setups.

Sound issues aside, this may also partly be a consequence of how unbelievably crisp and slick the band sounds on record; the taut production on their albums is some of the best I have ever heard from a rock band. In any case, Spoon eventually got into a groove, unleashing hits spanning each of their last six (!) albums. In fact, each of their full-length releases has been so solid—simultaneously polished yet rip-roaring—that your average Spoon fan is often at a loss for words when asked which Spoon album is his or her favorite.

On the whole, tracks from their newest album They Want My Soul were rousing and energetic. The album is significantly fierier than the band’s last release, Transference, which—with more meditative beats, muffled vocals, and turned-up bass—was more universally classified as a “headphones album” of sorts. The new tracks kicked about animatedly in a live setting. The single “Rent I Pay” had the crowd singing along to its memorable chorus as sputtering distorted guitars laid a jagged base for Britt Daniel’s charismatic vocal work. White lights pulsed brightly, accenting the ‘hey’s and ‘na na’s of the music as the band deftly pounded out song after breakneck song.

Aside from the new album, Spoon’s older material was equally captivating in concert. Every song off of the band’s 2005 release Gimme Fiction was a highlight: the bouncy disco-like beat of “I Turn My Camera On,” which the band augmented live with jackhammering electric guitars; the rollicking, rolling pianos that weave their way into your skull in “My Mathematical Mind;” the sensitive acoustic balladry of “I Summon You.” It is remarkable just how well the band’s work has aged, feeling hip and slaying in concert almost a decade after its release.

The band also snuck in “Anything You Want,” a nostalgic throwback to the 2001 album Girls Can Tell that was described by Daniel as the band’s “first super-personal song,” by request.

When the band closed after two hours of performance, I found myself hungry for more. Spoon’s back-catalog is so filled with great tunes that even after a 21-song setlist, it felt like they had barely even played half of their hits—a testament to the band’s lasting impact.

Though almost every one of their albums has ranked in various best-of lists, Spoon remains criminally unknown outside of the indie world—a wonderful treasure waiting to be discovered by the mainstream. The band was even ranked by review aggregator Metacritic as “Top Overall Artist of the Decade.” One need not be a seasoned indie explorer to appreciate Spoon’s charming synthesis of straightforward rock ‘n’ roll and forward-thinking production. If you are one of the aforementioned rock fans clamoring for good guitar music, or even a regular listener who wants to expand his or her musical horizons just a bit, I implore you to listen to Spoon’s albums. You will not regret it.