Review: Transference by SpoonPosted: February 2, 2010
The aggregate criticism site Metacritic, forever on the lookout for new ways to crunch data, crowned Spoon as their best musical artist of the decade. This wasn’t an editorial choice; they received the award for being the only band to release four albums and have a critical consensus of “great” for each of the four.
If Spoon’s latest release, Transference, were dropped a month earlier, Metacritic would’ve needed to bump that number up to five. Spoon has managed to make a wholly listenable album that moves the band in new directions while keeping one foot on the signature sound that has made them one of the most distinct and beloved bands in indie rock today. Again.
Girls Can Tell (2001) saw Spoon planting itself firmly onto the indie scene — nothing earth-shattering, but the piano-infused melodies and reliance on the guitar as a rhythmic instrument saw the band building their niche. Kill the Moonlight (2002) defined it, by stripping away the excess and focusing purely on the killer beats, snaps, and hooks that make music infectious. Gimme Fiction (2005) kept those essential song elements in focus but complicated matters by layering chaotic bursts of distorted guitar and more complex song structure. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007) polished and refined the band’s sound into ten cohesive, distinct, and expertly crafted songs, proving that Spoon had mastered the sound they had been building for the past ten years.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was Spoon’s OK Computer — a commercially and critically successful work from an alternative rock band at the height of their craft. In both cases, nearly perfect albums, completely devoid of filler. Both Radiohead and Spoon fans were left to wonder what to expect next. How to follow up a near perfect album? Radiohead took the most challenging route: changing styles. Kid A and Amnesiac rebuilt Radiohead from the ground up as an electronic band, wandering through ambient soundscapes that often drifted far from what most people would define as a “song.” Brilliant for sure, but hardly as palatable as their earlier work.
Spoon took a more conservative, but still difficult route: Don’t completely break the sound that gave you your success, just smack it with a hammer a few times. Transference‘s eleven songs are messier and choppier, deliberately lacking the perfectionist polish of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Spoon swerves in and out of the rough patches just enough to keep things interesting. In a lesser band’s hands this might sound like a rushed effort, but Spoon clearly hasn’t forgotten any of the lessons of their previous work. They’re just keeping the listeners on their toes by liberally applying two new techniques to disrupt initial expectations.
The first, the deliberate use of lower quality recording, appears about thirty seconds into “Before Destruction,” the album’s opener. Britt Daniel’s voice suddenly sounds distant, as if he took a couple steps back from the microphone. The amps are turned down, practically off, so we can hear the naturalistic chop of an electric guitar played acoustically. This technique appears again halfway through the album with “Trouble Come Running,” a short and fun song that sounds like it was recorded in a basement over a lazy Saturday (and I mean that in the best possible way). Few bands would elect to keep the various imperfections in the piano ballad “Goodnight Laura,” but Spoon does. Most bands would also probably use violins the fill in the empty air around the piano, but Spoon instead opts for simple humming. It’s all gloriously low-fi.
The second, disrupting song structure, is not noticeable at first. The listener will likely be short enough of expectations to take these songs at face value. On the second and third listens, it becomes very apparent. Songs will often end thirty seconds earlier than it seems like they should. “Is Love Forever?” and “The Mystery Zone” take it as far as cutting off mid-word. Other songs will continue for another thirty seconds after their apparent end. “Written in Reverse,” for example, briefly springs back to life after a fade out. Throw in an occasional disregard for typical verse-chorus structure, and you have a pretty good idea of the way Transference plays with the archetypal Spoon song.
Spoon has hit a sweet spot in their career arc. They have critical support and a solid fan base but aren’t famous enough to land the inevitable backlash. They are famous enough to sell out two nights at the 930 Club before this reviewer could get his hands on tickets (shakes fist angrily!), but independent enough to be nowhere to find on FM radio. For purely selfish reasons I hope they stay right where they are. It seems to me like the ideal position for Spoon to keep doing what they want and keep doing it damn well.