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Spoon - Filling Out the Fitted Shirt

 
Album number five from the Austin combo Spoon is due out sometime in spring 2004, with a current working title of Captured to Be Cooked, though The Beast and Dragon Are Adored has also been discussed. Whatever Spoon?s core members, vocalist/guitarist Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, wind up settling on, the album will surely be one of the most heralded indie rock releases of the year. Not bad for a band that five years ago many had given up for dead.

The boilerplate journalistic formulation in the typical Spoon article goes something like "Here's a band which was teetering on the brink of the abyss, was saved by its own greatness, and is now teetering on the brink of big time rock success." There's a measure of truth to that way of seeing things, but it fails to recognize that talent may be innate, but greatness is learned, and Spoon singer-songwriter Britt Daniel's early failures helped him learn to be great.

"I think there was maybe one point very early on before our first record where I thought 'OK yeah, everything's going to work and we're going to be huge," Daniel recalls. "And that lasted for about a month." What happened next was reality set in. Spoon's 1996 Matador debut album Telephono earned respectable critical marks for its taut and spiky brand of post-punk-inspired guitar pop which made reviewers grow nostalgic for the Pixies. But Matador failed to support the album and the band's relationship with the label quickly grew strained, prompting Spoon to depart for the major label dollars offered by Elektra Records (although Daniel remains friendly with Matador head Gerard Cosloy, who still puts out Spoon's records on his UK label 12XU).

The band's sophomore effort A Series of Sneaks improved on all the finer points of their debut, mixing minimalist production, potent guitar stabs, Eno's precise drum skeletons and Daniel's ragged English major's lyrical cleverness. But Elektra lost interest after four months and dropped the band. The convenient scapegoat was Spoon's infamously neglectful A&R rep Ron Lafitte, himself let go just before the band and later immortalized in song courtesy of Spoon's now legendary "Agony of Lafitte" CD single (also featuring "Lafitte Don't Fail Me Now"), released in 2000 on the Omaha indie Saddle Creek.

In a classic indie rock revenge fantasy, Daniel's friends The Faint encountered Lafitte, who'd since moved on to Capitol, at a dinner in New York where they were being wooed by the major, and gave him a copy of the EP. "I heard that he didn't utter a word the rest of the dinner," says Daniel, "and that was the beginning of the dinner."

But success is the best revenge of all. The EP aside, Daniel now acknowledges, "Lafitte's no worse than a lot of people in the record industry," adding, "it's really hard for me to hold grudges when I feel as happy as I am." His happiness stems from the fact that he found a label (Chapel Hill-based Merge) which actually supports his band and that he and Eno (and a supporting cast of many) are making records he feels proud of.

The first was 2001's Girls Can Tell, the band's triumphant return three years after the Elektra debacle, which carried the hallmarks of Spoon?s earlier sound while also demonstrating considerable artistic growth. Post-punk trademarks like lean fuzzy guitar riffs and prominent negative space remained, but Spoon was painting with a broader palette now, incorporating folky acoustic strum and organ on "1020 AM," moody vibes and viola on "Everything Hits at Once." Meanwhile Daniel's lyrics were increasingly honest, graceful and concrete, often resigned paeans to adolescent love. Other songs took on aging, like the poignant "Fitted Shirt," which in simple flourishes tackled the narrator's relationship to his father, society and self, all through the trope of the fitted shirt.

"My favorite singles are very minimal," says Daniel and on 2002's acclaimed follow-up Kill the Moonlight, minimalism ruled the day as Daniel and Eno stipped away all excess fat in search of their songs "pulsing hearts". Still Daniel continued to flash his increasingly sharp lyrical acumen on thoughtful songs like the semi-autobiographical "Jonathon Fisk," about a schoolyard bully, while the celebrated human beatbox of "Stay Don't Go" revealed a continued commitment to inventive production choices.

The two albums far surpassed Spoon's previous commercial success, with Girls Can Tell earning lavish praise from NPR, while Kill the Moonlight topped even that, achieving such pinnacles of commercial success as a shoutout in Time Magazine and snatch of "The Way We Get By" featured on the new FOX 90210 reprise The OC, while appearing on countlesss critics "Best of 2002" lists.

In the wake of Kill the Moonlight, Daniel busied himself with other projects like producing an EP for the Austin band I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness. He?s also been writing songs for the new album since the beginning of 2003. "The reason I think we're able to keep turning out records that are good,? he notes, "is because I spend a long, long time on writing and coming up with parts and stuff and it takes forever."

Looking back on Spoon's disastrous major label flirtation, the irony is that in this era of the Strokes and the Rapture and Interpol, Daniel's brand of smart nervy rock is just the sort of thing the majors are looking for. "We've actually been approached by Elektra," Daniel remarks wryly. "By someone there who didn't know that we had been on the label before."

But while Daniel welcomes success on a grander scale, he's happy where he is and happy to be doing what he?s doing. "I go at it not expecting to work and then when stuff does it really surprises me. I mean I really look at it as just this is what I always wanted to do, I feel lucky that I'm in a position where I get to make records and play music with people I like in front of people. That's really what it's all about."

Jesse Ashlock
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