Spoon | Transference (Merge, 2010): I'm not hip enough to have followed Britt Daniel's band from the beginning. Like many others, I discovered the band through I Turn My Camera On, which was featured in a commercial in 2005. Intrigued by the clever insouciance of the song, I had to know who it was, found out, bought Gimme Fiction (****1/2) and fell in love. I fell in love with their fresh take on song craft, Britt's versatile voice and that certain swagger.
Then I was told that it was their fourth album and that die-hard fans were not certain it ranked with their best. So I worked my way backwards, discovering the wonders of Kill The Moonlight (*****), Girls Can Tell (*****) and A Series of Sneaks (****). There were even a few gems on the Telephono/Soft Effects (***) reissue. By the time Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (***1/2) came out, I could be found singing along to Utilitarian at the top of my lungs when the band headlined Roseland.
So now we get to Transference, their first self-produced album in several years. In many ways, it is a return to the more abstract sounds of Kill The Moonlight and Girls Can Tell - and to the more heartfelt lyrics Britt was singing in those days. It's telling that several songs start with Jim Eno's drums, hearkening back to the emotional breakthrough of songs like Change My Life and Chips and Dip from the Love Ways (****) EP, where the drums speak nearly as eloquently as Ringo's work on John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.
But in no way is this a step backward. The band has absorbed much from it's time in the studio with Mike McCarthy and Jon Brion and has synthesized those lessons into record-making that is both simple and sophisticated. The use of echo on Is Love For Ever?, the way the guitars jump out in a 3D overlay on I Saw The Light, or the amphetamine rush of pianos on Nobody Gets Me But You - these and other canny touches create a sound world that is stripped down but richly compelling. The minimalist approach never grows arid, as it did on their disappointing contribution to Dark Was The Night (they should have covered this similarly titled song).
Not surprisingly for a band named after a Can song, more than a couple of the songs ride on a hypnotic beat that is a more relaxed version of the familiar Krautrock motorik rhythm (used so effectively by Wilco on last year's Bull Black Nova and on the earlier Spiders (Kidsmoke)). This even shades into an echo of Joy Division on the wonderfully melancholy outro of Out Go The Lights. The blast of slashing guitars on Written In Reverse and the garage-pop of Trouble Comes Running keep things dynamic.
Britt is in great voice throughout, using his whole range over the course of the album. His scream on Written In Reverse replicates the buzzsaw guitar that opens Revolution and must be heard to be believed. He even finds the confidence to deliver a straightforward lullaby on Goodnight Laura, which will no doubt be the cause of much swooning if they play it on tour. Other songs are more oblique lyrically but still resonate. For example, Trouble Comes Running opens with classic Daniel: "I was in a functional way/And I have my brown sound jacket/Queen of call collect on my arm/She was my calm-me-down/She was my good-luck charm." The overall impression is that Britt's been on a rocky romantic road and has come to bring the pain.
On Chips and Dip, Britt sang "sometimes I can't make myself shuck and jive." There was a little shucking and jiving on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga but on on Transference we get Spoon without compromise. Though they never really left, it feels like they're back. Give it a listen and let me know what you think - the band is streaming the whole thing here. *****
A Note About Record Reviews: There is no substitute for hearing music. You can read all you want but the proof of the pudding is always in the tasting. So I encourage anyone reading my reviews - even the negative ones - to check out a track or two at Lala, or at least a 30 second sample at iTunes, Amazon or eMusic, and make up your own mind. I want everyone to find their own joy through music and I would hate to throw any obstacles in your way. That said, I will use my reviews to give my opinion about the record in question, and to provide context for why I feel that way.
A Note About Ratings: I am ambivalent about ratings. With any rating system, you have to ask, "Compared to what?" For example, let's say we take it as a given that Live At The Apollo, Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland, Hot Buttered Soul, Dark Side of The Moon, Physical Grafitti, Aja, Exodus, Off The Wall, Entertainment!, London Calling, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and Nevermind are all five-star albums. Does that mean that if I give Transference five stars that it is as good as those records? Or does it simply mean that it ranks with Spoon's best work and that of their peers on the contemporary scene? The conundrum makes me want to scrap the whole idea of ratings. However, I see the usefulness of using ratings to compare different reviews and as a sorting principle. There is also the fact that only the passage of time can make something an enduring classic. So I am going to use a five-star system (half stars allowed) and apply it mainly in the context of the work of the artist and their contemporaries. I would like to think I can tell when something is a life-changing musical experience, like those on the list above, and will give the review extra oomph in those cases.
In two weeks: Some snap judgments of other new releases.