Britt Daniel loosens up lyrically and musically on Spoon's latest release
A few months ago, the Arena Rock Recording Co. released the compilation Bridging the Distance, featuring 19 artists from Portland, Ore., covering (mostly) well-known pop songs. As with most city-based, various-artists covers collections, it's largely negligible aside from a handful of cuts. Foremost among these is Spoon bandleader Britt Daniel's version of Sam Cooke's 1962 hit "Bring It on Home to Me." (Most of Spoon still lives in Austin, Texas, but Daniel moved to the Pacific Northwest last year.) Cooke's record was formally a duet, or more accurately a call-and-response--a young and uncredited Lou Rawls provided the second voice. Together, Cooke and Rawls presented gospel fervor in a domestic setting; vocally, neither man held anything back, yet the whole thing is as easy as a lullaby.
Nobody expects a good indie-rock singer to come near one of pop's half-dozen greatest vocalists. But Daniel's version of "Bring It on Home to Me" comes much closer than anyone but the president of the Spoon Fan Club might have imagined. The Daniel version sounds like a home recording, with a bit of tape hiss to set the scene, a minimum of musical backup (shaker and guitar and handclaps), and Daniel double-tracking his own voice. The singer sounds hungry and needful and up-front, claiming the song's lines without sounding overweening or desperate the way rock singers attempting R&B sometimes do. Daniel is in command, and more relaxed than you might guess.
The main reason you might have figured otherwise is that Spoon's last record, 2005's Gimme Fiction, was one of the most tightly wound albums in recent memory. Spoon started off playing noisy, Pixies-indebted rock in the early '90s--see the twofer of the band's early releases, Telephono/Soft Effects, that Merge reissued last year--and moved onto brisk, upright pop-rock with arrangements that wasted little. But sometimes tightness can turn impenetrable. As powerful as Gimme Fiction's robust sheen was, the album often felt like a maze without an exit. Not the way that, say, a Fiery Furnaces record might--with sonic and lyrical red herrings scattered around to reward the faithful and keep things lively--but something that folded in on itself in perpetuity. Not even the falsetto-led semi-disco turn "I Turn My Camera On" and the ace throwaway rocker "Sister Jack" offered much air.
Gimme Fiction's sense of control was so absolute it could feel unnerving, even menacing--until you paid attention to the words. There are many lyrics on the album where Daniel is singing either gibberish--"I went to places unknown/ Rented a room and I forgot my pen/ Shook my twin/ And I had to find the feeling again," from "The Beast and Dragon, Adored"--or something so private it might as well be gibberish. "I was on the outside, I was looking in/ I was in a drop-D metal band we called Requiem/ And I can't relax/ With my knees on the ground/ And a stick in my back." Individually, those lines from "Sister Jack" make sense, but if they evoke something specific, taken together as a verse, only Britt Daniel knows what it is.
From the title on down, there is almost no menace at all to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge), Spoon's sixth album. Pinpointing where it differs from Gimme Fiction is simple: Its grooves are looser and so is Daniel's singing. The arrangements are tart, not sour, with horns of the Motown-throwback ("You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb") and '60s-game-show ("The Underdog") varieties pepping things up where necessary. The album's tone is brighter than the frequently dour Fiction, or even 2002's relatively nonchalant Kill the Moonlight. The opening one-two punch of Gax5 directly evokes Kill the Moonlight's pair of leadoff cuts, albeit in reverse. The thumping lope of "Don't Make Me a Target" leans down hard on the two and four with such familiarity that you might have to fight the urge to sing "And that's the way we get by" over the song's refrain. ("The Way We Get By" was track two on Moonlight.) And the stammering piano underpinning "The Ghost of You Lingers" carries an echo of the jittery keyboard hook of Moonlight opener "Small Stakes."
Even as Gax5 contains Spoon's most immediate music, the album remains slightly out of reach, which again is down to the words. But their obscurity this time around feels ingrained, not willful. A lyric like "It's just my Japanese cigarette case/ Bring the mirror to my face/ Let all my memories be gone" may be perplexing on its face, but emerges from Daniel's mouth like a wink, instead of sounding like he's avoiding your glance. The songs that surround it don't feel especially mysterious, either. Daniel the lyricist doesn't have much to say, and he gets at his points, when he has them, from obscure angles, as on "Black like Me," the album's closer: "I spent the night in the bathroom/ I humanized the vacuum." That last line could work as a thumbnail of what Daniel does throughout Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, bringing his own oddly contoured thoughts on home like a soul man.
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