Six LPs into their career, Austin’s Spoon has become pretty ubiquitous for an indie rock band. Their singles, including “I Turn My Camera On” and “The Way We Get By” turn up all over the place, including an enlightening video of a dancing robot on YouTube. Spoon has also provided the soundtrack for a movie (Stranger than Fiction) and has done commercials for Jaguar. While the awful truth may be that the majority of fans at a Spoon show would list the O.C. as their point of entrance, Spoon’s songwriting has been consistently good for a decade: look no further than Girls Can Tell (2001) or Kill the Moonlight (2002) for proof.
The Underdog [mp3]
Spoon’s latest release, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, is fuller and warmer than ever, and with extra instrumentation like horns and sax, they’re sometimes reminiscent of a 60’s pop band. A ringy snare drum drives the particularly retro “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” to great effect; drummer Jim Eno’s production is dead-on. “The Underdog” is similarly retro sounding, layering the instruments predictably (but triumphantly) towards one hell of a trumpet-voiced chorus. There is pretty much nothing else in the Spoon discography that sounds like these two tracks. “Don’t You Evah”, with it’s circular bass-line and hooky verse melody, is destined to be the lasting single, if only for how deep into the subconscious it can potentially drill.
While I would argue that the bright and shiny pop moments of the album deliver Spoon goodness with unprecedented success, it’s the moments between that I’m not so sure about. “The Ghost of You Lingers” erases any momentum that track one might have worked up, going all Phil Collins frail (and weird). Tracks 5 and 6 fly in the face of the coiled energy of “Don’t You Evah”, losing direction and grasping for hooks as deftly as the latter delivered. It’s not that every track needs a hook, because they certainly don’t, but these songs don’t have the same competence: it’s as if songwriter Britt Daniel sacrificed catchiness for mood and then dropped the ball on the mood.
Spoon has been notorious for albums that grow on you as time passes, and this is thanks in part to Daniel’s experimentation with song structure. He obviously knows how to make a fully functioning pop song, but his willingness to rearrange the formula leads to bits and chunks of music that take time to digest. Songs that you dislike initially have the potential to become your favorite songs. But unfortunately Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga feels very polarized between weak and strong songs. The second half of the album, especially, meanders around without ever really regaining the kind of direction apparent in the first four tracks. “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case” edges towards an interesting resolution, but backs off just when it’s getting good. And “Finer Feelings” tries to rely on a ho-hum chorus to no avail – a confusing bridge consisting of crowd noise and an unintelligible PA voice does nothing to save the song at the end.
For all of its faults, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is still a good album. For a band twelve years old, they are showing as many new tricks as they are relying on the old familiar ones, and there is something to be said for this. But where “The Way We Get By” had a solid supporting cast around it, the stand-out tracks here are naked in comparison. But that sure won’t keep the teenagers from coming to the shows…