Sunday, August 17, 2014

Bulletproof Spoon

In 1961, sultry entertainer Ann-Margaret recorded I Just Don't Understand, a minor key ballad with a haunting melody that made perfect sense coming from the pen of co-writer Marijohn Wilkin, who also co-wrote the perennial classic Long Black Veil. Producer Chet Atkins gave the song the full treatment, with harmonica, male backing vocals (probably The Jordanaires) and, most outlandishly, a stinging fuzz guitar, apparently only the first or second time such a sound had appeared on a record. The song - and the sound - caught the ear of John Lennon who, according to Mark Lewisohn, just had to sing it. While The Beatles were unable to recreate the fuzz guitar, the song made it into their live set and (after being requested by "Kathleen, Carol and Pauline of Bradford") was recorded at the BBC in 1963.

The Beatles version was essentially lost to history until 1994 when the first Live At The BBC collection came out. By then, people new to the recording were able to bring all their knowledge and feelings about Lennon to bear when listening to the song, investing what could simply be a terrific (if slightly kitschy) relic with extra significance. From what we know of Lennon's conflicted feelings about women - the jealousy, the neediness - its easy to see what attracted him to the song. It's also not the first time he took on a track that had originally been sung by a woman, adding to the intrigue. I Just Don't Understand has had some legs, being recorded a few more times in the 60's and 70's, but no one was searching Jerry Reed's version for psychological insights.

Now we have it resurrected again by Spoon, the one cover featured on They Want My Soul, their first album in four years. They also avoid any fuzz guitar, letting piano drive the song, but their version is an interesting window into the emotional territory of the album. Unlike John Lennon, we don't know a heck of a lot about Britt Daniel, Spoon's leader, except that he's a rock & roll true believer, probably as much of a fan of the music now as when he began his career in 1991. As pointed out in the recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Daniel often approaches songwriting analytically, bringing disparate elements from things he loves together in new ways, creating endless nesting dolls of references, inside jokes and homages. Despite those magpie tendencies, Spoon has an immediately identifiable sound, often due to the alternating swagger and vulnerability of Daniel's voice, which has grown grittier over the years and is one of the marvels of rock.

He pushes that burr beautifully in I Just Don't Understand, and all over They Want My Soul, sounding better than ever, but also more defended. We've come a long way from the late-night thoughts of Everything Hits At Once (Girls Can Tell, 2001): "I go to sleep but think that you're next to me." I used to feel guilty playing that in the office after my colleague had been dumped - it cuts to the bone in a way that Spoon doesn't really do any more. The subtext of the album title is "they want my soul - but they ain't getting it." In truth, this is the direction the band has been going in since Gimme Fiction, their breakout album from 2005, and They Want My Soul is their most bulletproof album yet.

That hard, brilliantly textured exterior, perhaps partly due to new production partners Dave Fridmann and Joe Chicarelli, makes for a killer headphone listen, encaging me on the streets of NYC like a Mobb Deep record. Hip hop is not as off-kilter a reference as you might think, as Jim Eno's drums have never been more processed. Let Me Be Mine even has some of the badass Gary Glitter strut of Kanye's Black Skinhead. Inside Out, the second cut, starts with a deep, melancholy groove led by Eno's fat snare, almost outsized in relation to the other instruments. I can almost hear a remix with Chance The Rapper telling a sad story about his grandmother over this beat. Inside Out also features marvelous celestial keyboards which I suspect are from new guy Alex Fischel rather than long-time member Eric Harvey. Fischel came to Spoon from Divine Fits, Daniel's new-wave leaning side project, and his electronic sensibility was one of the delights of their 2012 album.

Eno is the other key member of Spoon and his brick-hard snare is the first sound you hear on They Want My Soul, kicking off Rent I Pay, a great mid-tempo slow burner that sets the tone for the album from the jump. With its aphoristic, pissed-off refrain, it's a bit bitter and as such has companions in Do You, Knock Knock Knock, Outlier, the title track, I Just Don't Understand and Let Me Be Mine, making for a slightly malevolent listen. I don't think Daniel wants us to read too much into that, however. As he said in Paste magazine earlier this month: "...if there's a band that's...doing something vaguely threatening, it appeals to me. I like it." It's as if he's playing with moods and emotions, the same way he assembles the layers of the tracks in the studio.

And those layers sound fantastic, often pairing artfully scuzzy guitars with the sleek gleam of the rhythm section, like a rusted car riding on a chrome-plated chassis. Many of the songs also have a driving urgency that sets the pulse racing, even if you're not sure what Daniel is singing about exactly. Outlier fades in with a pumping bass line, organ stabs, and dry acoustic strumming, lending a windswept air to whatever atmosphere surrounds you at the moment. It also contains the priceless couplet "And I remember when you walked out of Garden State/You had taste, you had taste." Another classic line comes in the title song: "Educated folk singers want my soul/Jonathon Fisk still he wants my soul/I got nothin I want to say to them." Jonathon Fisk is the name of a song from Kill The Moonlight, Spoon's fourth album, about a kid who bullied Daniel in high school. So you wonder - is Daniel still wounded by Fisk or is he just adding another layer to the glass onion?

In the end it doesn't matter. Spoon has one of the best, most consistent catalogs in rock, earning them the right to be self-referential. They've soundtracked my life since 2005, when I Turn My Camera On triggered an investigation into their past and an investment in their future. They were also one of the bands that made me commit wholeheartedly to the magnificent music of our time and to do my best to stay on top of it, inadvertently leading to this blog. For that, they have my soul. Not to worry, Britt - we don't want your soul, just more terrific records like this one, whenever you and your compatriots are so moved to make them.

Spoon is on tour in the U.S. and Europe throughout the fall.

Catch up with a playlist of some of Spoon's greatest songs.

No comments:

Post a Comment