Thursday, July 26, 2007

Headphones: Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

I'm not going to directly quote, but I recently read that R. Kelly compared himself to Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, and Martin Luther King Jr. It's sad that someone can become so delusional. Um, Kelly has never given the world anything but the remix to “Ignition” and the heebie geebies. But he does shed light on a troubling fact - there are no unifying figures in pop culture right now. It's sad. There should be, but the relationship between clichéd, low-brow entertainment and a country-wide audience seems like a marriage built for the long haul, and the war between red and blue states has put impressionable children on opposite sides of the street and given them rocks and rotten eggs. Leonardo DiCaprio would have been a good choice earlier in his career, but he's now forever burdened by being a 'dirty hippie', as Eric Cartman would say. Another hopeful figure, to me, is Common. One listen to what the guy is trying to go for overall in his career...well, first of all, he wants a career, which is awesome. Second, he's trying to be everything to everyone, but without softening his personal stances. His recent alliance with Kanye West helps his beats, but hurts cuz Kanye yells louder most of the time. Anyway, if there's a new Marvin Gaye, it's probably Common. So, who's the new Beatles? Fuck, who's the new any rock band that can unite people? The next U2, Nirvana, whoever you got... And don't say Radiohead, cuz as much as their fans (myself included) want to see the world through ‘Black Star’ glasses, the unfortunate truth is most of the world doesn't want to get behind a sad-sack midget with a lazy eye, no matter how jaw-droppingly spectacular his voice is. There hasn't been one of those universal bands in ages. I have a dream that one day soon that band will be Spoon.

For the last dozen years, Spoon has primarily been Britt Daniel and Jim Eno, and they are one of the best bands on Earth. Britt's gift for melody and lyrics has allowed him to fuse the spirit of The Beatles, The Kinks, 60's Soul music, Elvis Costello, Prince, David Bowie, Tom Petty, and the Pixies into a distinctive Spoon sound. His lyrics skew to the familiar, small town tales about dancing with your girl, smoking some nice weed, or broken hearts - stuff that could have happened to anyone, told with missing details like you're only hearing one end of a phone conversation. His vocals come in pleas and moans and croons and sometimes growls, but always with his charming, stuffed-up nasal Texas drawl. He is Mr. Pop Everyman, and Spoon is the only band I could probably turn my entire diverse circle of friends onto. They are 'The Underdog' you can get behind, pun intended.

Jim Eno is the best drummer in Rock history that will never be recognized as such by a drum magazine. His plays it simple, somewhere between Watts and Starr, with some Stax Records thrown in. It's not that he can't throw down; when Spoon started, he could knock out some twisted post-hardcore signature changes (see their debut Telephono), but he'd rather be an unfuckwitable metronome. He is the funkiest white boy that looks like a science teacher or your dad that you'll ever hear. He isn't just in the groove, he is the fuckin' groove. And it doesn't stop there - he is usually credited with being the production genius behind Spoon. Since the band has grown out of its scrappy Punk fascination, starting with 1998's A Series Of Sneaks and emerging on 2001's already classic Girls Can Tell, Daniel and Eno have explored the deconstruction of Pop Music. They record the best album you'd ever hear, and then they chop it up and make it better. Daniel knows what he wants, and Eno knows how to make it a reality. They’ve held a remarkably high level of consistency since 1997, growing into the Jordan-Pippen axis of music. On Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, they present their most complete collection of songs, culled from the ideas on all their previous records; it’s their 5th championship.

Do you remember what it was like to watch Michael Jordan play, like it almost wasn't fair to the other team? It's not even enough that Spoon make instantly classic albums, it's that they almost never record weak songs, and putting those rare weak tracks on albums is pretty much unheard of. I'd be hard pressed to give you 10 less-than-good songs over their last decade of music. Find another band that good. I dare you. We're talking five albums, 3 or 4 EPs, and probably about a dozen cuts for compilations and soundtracks. On this album, the closest you'll get is "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case", which has only three or four lines of lyrics, but it makes up for it by having some great little Japanese flourishes, string stabs and psychedelic echoes. It's tossed off, but perfectly done. It's a lovely little song, and there are nine more that are WAY better.

If there’s anything Spoon can do better than anyone, it’s set an atmosphere. I've listened to this disc dozens of times since it leaked onto the Internet in May, but tonight was the first time I listened on my excellent Sennheiser noise-canceling headphones. Let me tell you, I was whipping my head around constantly - Spoon had me thinking ghosts were talking to me in my house. Stray conversations, multiple sound effects and bits of studio noise are strategically left throughout the songs, and these rough edges only serve to further fascinate beyond the excellent tunes. "The Ghost Of You Lingers" is probably the most unsettling and weird song on the album, but once you've gotten past the banging piano, Britt's echo-chamber double-vocal (one in each headphone channel) enchants you and the song reveals itself as one of his most heartbreaking ballads; bursts of static that first seem like a CD glitch are just another part of Jim Eno's production genius. On the other end of the spectrum, "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and "Black Like Me" are robust and grand; the former revisits Phil Spector and Motown with lots of bass, confident horns and all the bells & whistles, while the latter floats gently on acoustic guitar and piano before the big movie-score strings carry it away. You find yourself so engrossed in Daniel's narrative - "I spend the night in the map room; I humanized the vaccuum" - that you can completely overlook details like someone talking in the background or the scary, moaning mellotron burping what sounds like a foghorn over the verses.

Little details like this are left to be found all over the album, like an easter egg hunt or a Hardy Boys mystery, and they're just another reason that this disc will stay in your player for years. The great songs don't hurt. The melancholy of “Eddie’s Ragga” starts with what sounds like a machine stalling, before giving way to a rolling beat, slashing guitar, and a lyric juxtaposing a universal lament about a girl with specific details like “She’s never been to Texas, never heard of King Kong” (not specifying whether he means the giant ape or the band from Kentucky), and "We did an Airborne and settled in for the night". The great party-starter “Finer Feelings” piles on everything and the kitchen sink; a stuttering bassline and bouncy breakbeat are punctuated by handclaps, maracas, and colorful guitar, and still joined by snippets of reggae toasters, crowd noise, melodica, and what sounds like a Doppler-ed siren. Opener "Don't Make Me A Target" is Daniel at his most blatantly political, but it's from an interesting perspective you don't often hear - a Texan who disagrees with the President ("Here come a man from The Star; we don't know why he goes so far") and his administration ("Nuclear dicks with their dialect drawls"), and what would he say to him if he had the chance. The answer: the title of the song. Daniel gets the words out of the way, then letting the music do the talking; guitar noise strafes the area as the band lays down a solid chug.

It's already been decided by the Internet tastemakers that "The Underdog" is (a) one of the songs of summer ‘07, (b) surely one of the singles of the year, and (c) Britt Daniel's latest entry in the pantheon of classic Pop songs, along side (at least) "The Way We Get By" and "I Turn My Camera On". And those Internets are correct. The song could be Spoon's kiss-off to a bully, the Industry, the Man, whatever, that never believed in them to be the big time band they can be. "You don't talk to the waterboy; and there's so much you could learn but you don't want to know...You got no fear of the underdog; that's why you will not survive." Tell me that wasn't written from experience. Tell me you don't want these guys to stick it to the Man. Well, stand up and cheer with me, cuz Spoon just had this album debut in the top 10 after years of being pretty much ignored. The tide is turning; I think my dream might come true.

Raz's Rating
MUSIC: Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

-Spoon's official site
(see Jim Eno in all his science teacher glory)

"The Underdog" video

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