Britt pop

The spare magic of Spoon
By WILL SPITZ  |  October 9, 2007

VIDEO: Spoon, "The Underdog"

Spoon, "The Underdog" (mp3)
It’s like the Anti–Wall of Sound: Spoon’s spartan approach to rock-and-roll arrangement and recording, which they’ve been honing for more than a dozen years and have damn near perfected with their sixth album. On Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge), their better-late-than-never commercial breakthrough (the album debuted at #10 on the Billboard 200), there’s nary a note wasted, every guitar strum and tambourine jingle distinct and carefully placed in the service of frontman Britt Daniel’s meticulous compositions.

The Austin-based band’s formula is no secret: “They mostly stick to paring rock songs down to the barest elemental” (Will Hermes on the NPR Web site); “Spoon has stripped down to almost nothing” (New York); “a band that strips songs down to the bare minimum, keeping only the necessary elements” (Washington Post); “scrupulous” (New Yorker). Despite its minimalist trappings, Ga Ga surprises with each repeated listen — there’s as much to dig into and digest as on any Phil Spector recording. But whereas Spector aims to overwhelm with a dense, multi-layered sound, Daniel and his mates — drummer Jim Eno, keyboardist Eric Harvey, and bassist Rob Pope — want you to feel each individual note, as if distinguishing the specific flavors of a well-prepared meal.

“I don’t want to just add some instrument to the recording and think that it’s going to be better off just because there’s another thing on there,” says Daniel over the phone from Columbia, Missouri, in the midst of a headlining tour that took them to Saturday Night Live October 6 and will bring them to the Roxy this Wednesday. “You want to have some sort of focal point on each track and then have something that makes each song special and make that what people walk away with, instead of like, ‘There were 15 guitar tracks, and I can kind of understand one of them.’ ”

On “Don’t You Evah,” the focal point is Pope’s simple, repetitive bass line, which is knitted to Eno’s drum beat. Daniel’s guitar is even more basic; it does little more than accent the bass and drums. The only instrumentation on “The Ghost of You Lingers” is a repeating eighth-note pattern, the “ga ga ga ga ga” of the album’s title, over which Daniel’s overlapping vocal lines are salient and creepy as hell.

Yes, the chorus of the next song, the Motowny “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” is buoyed by thick horn accompaniment. But, true to Spoon form, it’s tasteful and restrained — no Clarence Clemons “Jungleland” solos here. Horns play a similar role on the Van Morrison–inspired, Jon Brion–produced single “The Underdog.” “I heard this song by Ray Davies that he did with the Jools Holland Orchestra where it sounds slightly like a mariachi band and slightly like a Pogues backing track or something where the horns are just celebrating being alive,” Daniel says. “That was the feel I told Jon that I wanted when we came up with the horn part — you know, just shouting.”

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Related: Spoon | Transference, E-hanging out, Miraculous?, More more >
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