The bitter irony of Girls Can Tell, Spoon’s third full-length (Merge), is this: though the Austin-based trio are one of the finer working rock-and-roll bands around, it’s even money as to whether the new disc represents a second chance or a last gasp. Spoon singer/guitarist/songwriter Britt Daniel would, of course, like to make a case for the former. “I just hope that people get to hear this record because I think it’s our best,” he offers over the phone from his Austin home. “If people don’t, it may be our last . . . I don’t know.”
The story of Spoon is by now a wretchedly familiar one. After releasing the promising debut Telephono on the independent label Matador back in 1996, where Daniel and his band out-Wired Elastica and laid down an artful punk-pop foundation that drew on classic sources like Television and the first Modern Lovers LP, the band jumped the good ship indie for what turned out to be the major-label hell of Elektra. Working in a pro studio for the first time, they spent a good chunk of their Elektra advance-recording, fine-tuning, and fussing over the 1998 A Series of Sneaks, a taut sonic firecracker that proved one of those rare instances when a band’s defection to the major leagues didn’t mean creative dilution or disaster.
On the commercial end, however, things didn’t work out so well — in fact, Elektra barely gave the album a chance. By the time Spoon hit T.T. the Bear’s Place that summer, opening for Creeper Lagoon and playing songs from an album that was barely four months old, the group had been dropped by Elektra and were financing their tour out-of-pocket.
Watching the defiant Daniel on stage at T.T.’s that night made the legendary capriciousness and myopia of the music business seem all too real. After the show, he asked whether I could send him a copy of the review I was writing for the Phoenix and then, as if to pre-empt yet another empty promise, wondered whether I really would, since nobody ever kept his word anyway.
That was, he says now, “a hard time for me personally. I didn’t know if Spoon was going to go on anymore or if I was going to start another band or if I was even going to do anything with the songs. The feeling that I was 28 or whatever and didn’t have any way of really making money and was thinking about going back to school — that kind of feeling contributed to the content of a few of the songs on the new album.”
Life seems better than it’s been in some time for Spoon. After two years of flux, they’ve found a home on Superchunk’s Merge Records, which also released their Love Ways EP late last year. And Girls Can Tell buzzes and throbs with the wrath of a band scorned — a band exacting revenge by sticking around. Of course, that’s kind of how Spoon have always sounded. “I’m on a straight line when a man comes around/And he got lines in the suit/Coming out to make us moot . . . He says I’ve got nowhere to go/Tell me something I don’t know,” a bee-stung Daniel sings on “Lines in the Suit” in his choked, sob stutter of a voice. As drummer Jim Eno and bassist Josh Zarbo batten down the rhythmic hatches around him, he asks: “How come I feel so washed up at such a tender age?”
Daniel may have felt washed up after the Elektra experience, but he certainly doesn’t sound it on Girls Can Tell. The new songs bob and weave with a welterweight’s one-two of insolence and impatience, as spiky, angular riffs spring from his guitar. His songwriting, meanwhile, has developed a warmer, more overtly melodic sensibility: touches of harpsichord, organ, and mellotron add tunefulness to Spoon’s guitar/bass/drums foundation. Daniel says the shift has to do with his desire to “make a record that people can sing along to, that gives you a good feeling like the Beatles give you, or Motown records give you.”
So would Spoon ever sign with a major label again?
Daniel laughs. “I don’t know. I think there are probably people that have an appreciation for the history of music and the tradition of rock and roll who work at major labels. I just haven’t met them.”