Friday, September 15, 2006

Not Turning Off

Spoon - Telephono and Soft Effects (Matador/Merge)

"My favorite songs are minimal—We Will Rock You, Back in Black, Kiss by Prince. Those songs take on the world, but they do it with just a few instruments. I can't explain why, but that's really all you need."
-- Britt Daniel to TIME magazine (2003)

I've always thought of Austin's Spoon as the post-punk version of classic rock. By that, I don't mean Led Zeppelin, but the more melodic sounds of the Who, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones--yep, Britons every one. And yet I'm thinking of their most American-sounding stuff, i.e. Exile on Main Street as opposed to their early-1960s sides. That said, the Texans took their name from a song by German combo Can and were often compared to Wire, another band of Brits, in their formative days.

Released a decade ago, Telephono is Spoon's full-length debut. According to the liner notes, it was recorded by John Croslin (Zeitgeist/the Reivers) to eight-track in 1995. At the time, the group was a trio consisting of singer/guitarist Britt Daniel (a dead ringer for Buddy Holly-era Gary Busey), drummer Jim Eno, and bass player Andy Maguire. Also recorded to eight-track, Matador issued the more sophisticated Soft Effects EP the following year.

Merge has now remastered and made both available again as a two-CD set (though they've restored all original artwork, I would've preferred one disc). My Spoon collection, non-LP tracks aside, is now complete. Although I don't hear much Wire (except in the minimalist "Mountain to Sound," a precursor to the classic "Fitted Shirt"), I do hear a band that had locked in on their signature sound right from the start.

As far as those classic rock references are concerned, another one that comes to mind is Rod Stewart--or even John Lennon--in terms of Daniel's effortlessly versatile vocals. And no, I don't mean the present-day standard singer, but Rod the Mod, circa the Faces, as well as those rockin' solo recordings, Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story. Like Stewart, Daniel can handle the soft stuff as well as the hard. And that's just as true of his guitar-playing as his singing. (Did I mention that I love '70s-era Stewart?)

So, that's what I hear on this set: Rock as punk. The tempos are fast and the numbers are short (many around the two-minute mark), but they're definitely fully-formed songs--verse, chorus, bridge, et al. Daniel, the sole songwriter, already had a sense of structure and songcraft. This is the kind of stuff you can sing along with, dance along to--whatever it is you do when some catchy, fast-moving rock and roll comes on the stereo. You can even swear along with the "motherfuckers" in "All the Negatives Have Been Destroyed" or the "fucks" in the Thin Lizzy-esque "Nefarious" (according to Matador, the latter was their first single).

On subsequent recordings, especially Girls Can Tell (2001) and Kill the Moonlight (2002), Spoon have reminded me of Elvis Costello and the Jam, which is to say, they may not be pop purveyors, but they've long understood what a hook is all about. Try "Idiot Driver," "Towner," or the feedback-drenched Pixies-style rocker "Don't Buy the Realistic" to start ("Dismember," on the other hand, sounds too much like the Pixies for my taste).

For those who haven't yet made Spoon's acquaintance, Telephono probably isn't the best place to start, but if you tuned in late and weren't sure if their 1990s records were any good, my answer is: Yes! Plus, the two-CD package comes with the video for "Not Turning Off" and sells for the price of a single disc. See also A Series of Sneaks (1998), the adventurous album that got them dropped from Elektra, and which was also reissued by Merge in 2002.

Endnote: Images from Merge and Matador. I tried to afix some older photos to this post (from back when they were a trio), but with no luck, hence the Gimme Fiction-era picture at the top.

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