The tumultuous early days of Austin TX’s Spoon have been pretty well reported. Tapped by Elektra Records at the tail end of the ‘90s, the band was swept up in the last moments of the major labels’ blind desire for all things indie only to be dropped like a steaming turnip when the dude responsible for their signing vacated his job and A SERIES OF SNEAKS, the group’s sole full length for the label undersold expectations. A familiar story at the time, and one from which most bands didn’t recover. But Spoon survived the doldrums, regrouping and joining Merge Records, where their methodical ascension to the upper reaches of the album charts in this still young century is a well deserved turn of events and a sharply delivered raspberry in the face of corporate lackeys and the bean counters they employ. By my estimation 2000’s GIRLS CAN TELL is Spoon’s first certified masterpiece, but they really turned a corner and then laid down the rubber two years later with KILL THE MOONLIGHT, which featured a still dazzling dozen songs of smart contemporary rock with natural popish inflections shrewdly polished (yet not so much that the rough edges are sacrificed), a record very likely destined to land as one of the Aughts most crucial statements. Yes, maybe we should let a couple of decades of dust clear, allowing for less purely subjective assessments, but still the desire gnaws. The disc is almost ten years old after all, and I think it’s pretty much undeniable that the LP was a signifier of great things to come not only for the band but for the course of indie music in general. I’m referring to the increasingly common success of small groups wielding sonic strategies that prove to have mass appeal and with the bands doing so entirely and refreshingly on their own terms. Spoon is obviously an example of this phenomenon, but so are LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire and most recently Iron & Wine. KILL THE MOONLIGHT wasn’t a particularly big seller back when it hit the racks, but in retrospect it was surely prescient, making absolutely no distinction between its alternately bruised and joyous sound and that of any other act residing in the sale bins. To put a fine point on it, Spoon weren’t speaking to a specific audience and then hoping for the residuals of crossover success, they were speaking to everybody (or nobody, if you prefer) without kowtowing even a bit to a perceived lowest common denominator (junk music that’s hot for six months or a year and then forgotten until a nostalgia wave hits; get ready for the inevitable appearance of ‘90s retro and people “rediscovering” The Presidents of the United States of America) or the meddlesome influence of major label market research. KILL THE MOONLIGHT is the uncommon sound of a free band: emancipated from the early influence of The Pixies, they replaced it with a highly original approach that seems loosely connected to the wide open achievements The Rolling Stones and Kinks landed in the late ‘60s, an era when bands were often given elbow room and the benefit of the doubt instead of being constantly second-guessed and interfered with by businessmen. Merge-era Spoon is incredibly difficult to tie to precedent or even to style. Guitar is a lovely element in their arsenal, but they wander substantially outside the corral of simple “guitar bands”, and while brilliantly employed keyboards and production finesse are put to the test, the group never stray far from the template of rock music. This is doubly impressive since Spoon obviously relish isolating and magnifying certain instruments into electrifying passages. Take MOONLIGHT’s opener “Small Stakes” for instance. Largely just programmed drums, distorted keyboard and Britt Daniel’s terrifically raspy vocals, it’s a riveting example of addition by subtraction that’s immediately followed up by “The Way We Get By”, a sort of blasé manifesto delivered by Daniel and dominated by clean, pounding electric piano, expert rhythm drive and the cunning accent of a crafty tambourine. Guitar doesn’t appear until the third track “Something to Look Forward To”, but when it does assert itself into the mix the development is natural; nothing feels like it has been missed or grafted on. Rather it’s just one more element in a fine recipe. “Stay Don’t Go”’s use of a vocal clip as a rhythmic loop points to the general aura of non-show-offy experimentation that makes MOONLIGHT such a success, and “Jonathon Fisk” is one of the best fist-pumping speed-down-the-interstate rockers I’ve ever heard, and rest assured I’ve heard a few. That’s just the first five cuts. The record then shifts a bit, heading toward the achy vocal and lyrical mode that Daniel’s extremely adept at mining, though the focus never undercuts Spoon’s ability as an inventive band, avoiding the tendency to become a vehicle for an extremely gifted front man. The production by Daniel, drummer Jim Eno and Mike McCarthy is a marvel of judicious balance, with “All the Pretty Girls Go to the City” presenting the group’s strongest qualities on equal footing. And I can’t neglect mentioning that the appearance of gruff horn gusts on “You Gotta Feel It” gives an unexpected twist to an already magnificent tune. The album closes quickly and relatively quietly with “Vittorio E”, a denouement full of acoustic strum and a more contemplative side from Daniel. It culminates an affair that’s just a few ticks shy of thirty-five minutes, denying the allure of the exhaustive in favor of expectations to come. Through the completion of three more records they’ve soundly delivered on that promise. And to think, all this from a band named after a Can song. It’s just too bad that Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti didn’t live to hear it.
With most bands and artists it’s easy for me to pick a favorite record. The Beatles? THE WHITE ALBUM. Randy Newman? SAIL AWAY. Marvin Gaye? WHAT’S GOING ON. Wire? CHAIRS MISSING. Mission Of Burma? VS. Public Enemy? IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK. See what I mean? But in the case of Bob Dylan I’ve never been able to settle on a fave, at least from his legit studio output. Keep in mind I’m not confusing Favorite with Greatest, though sometimes they are indeed one and the same. The mind-bending spurt of recording that appeared on numerous bootlegs and eventually surfaced in legit form on THE BASEMENT TAPES is in my opinion his greatest work by a large margin, forming a key that unlocks an inexhaustible doorway into the enthralling and frustrating modernity and desperation and beauty of the 20th century, but I’d be fibbing if I called it my favorite. That period in Dylanology, for me anyway, is a dense thicket of expression that’s best absorbed in strong doses and then set aside, the better to reflect and conjure possible answers to its enigmatic riddles. But as inexhaustible as it is it can also be flat exhausting (but in a good way, like too much exercise), and favorite records are never that. Setting this aside and just considering the post-electric studio albums from the ‘60s, I’m still stumped to pick a personal tip-top. Starting with BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME and ending with NASHVILLE SKYLINE they form one hell of a run, a string of records so influential that Dylan along with The Beatles and Stones sorta dominated the conversation on their formative decade well nigh twenty years later. At least it felt that way to me at the time, and my youthful reaction (a typical one) was to kick ‘em aside in favor of other stuff. Instead of The Beatles and Stones it was The Yardbirds and The Pretty Things, and instead of Bob it was Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk and Tom Rush and Tim’s Hardin and Buckley. But it’s odd for me to reconsider that Dylan was the first ‘60s icon that I wholeheartedly clutched to my chest, way back before I even entered the hallowed and harrowing halls of high school. BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME was my first Dylan record, owned on a long lost cassette, and when in my ‘20s I was slowly seduced back into the pro-Bob fold in large part due to the guiding hand/mind of the great writer and thinker Greil Marcus, HOME was the first LP I purchased to refortify my collection. So it’s appropriate to state that HOME has been with me longer than any other Dylan slab. And as such, it might be my favorite by simple sentimental default. All of the songs have been justly celebrated, but at this late date many of the tunes have been carried quite far away from their original presentation, appearing on best-of compilations, box sets and enduring constant play on radio. So countless numbers of folks know “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Mr. Tambourine Man”, but significantly fewer have soaked up the deeper context provided by their appearance as openers on opposing sides of vinyl, the first side defiantly electric the second acoustic yet subversive. May I be so bold as to suggest that ears familiar with the sneering punkish bile of “Maggie’s Farm” and the melancholic closure of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that haven’t experienced them as two vital parts of HOME’s amazing whole haven’t really heard those songs? Because yes, the A side of the album offers a new twist, specifically Dylan betraying folk convention and going electric rock like an unwashed rouge, and the B side of the album presents the climax and abstraction of an old familiar thing, namely Dylan the famous folky doing it solo on an unplugged six-string but pushing away from simple protest in favor of image laden obscurity. But while these two sides have a stark surface difference they are ultimately revealed as two contrasting flavors of the same impulse: A portrait of the artist turning from the political toward the personal, away from the polemical in favor of the poetical. And as much as I love a good rousing sing-along of pointed protest tunes (in fact, it seems we need them now more than ever), I can’t deny that in my estimation BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME is where Dylan really starts to get interesting. Sure, he’d get more flamboyant, perplexing and fascinatingly inscrutable later, but this here’s the ground floor in the renaissance of a true American original, and anybody interested in the course of modern music should get to know it inside and out.