Now that we’ve looked at a stereotypical indie record, let’s jump right into four essential records from a brilliant indie band. This sort of thing might become a quasi-monthly feature.
One of the most inspirational stories in world of indie is that of Spoon. Rejected by their label (who didn’t support them), they briefly expressed their anger and proceeded to turn the rage into perfect music. They’re a tale of the power of talent and will; Spoon were good enough to get a second chance and had the drive to make it work. And work it did, to the tune of two straight top 10-selling records in the US.
But drive and talent don’t mean much of anything if not translated to results in impressive music. And that’s why we’re discussing them: Spoon have not only overcome the odds to be popular, they’ve pushed the bounds of indie music and helped advance the genre, even getting a bit of crossover into the mainstream (their latest, Transference, debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200).
In particular, Spoon’s evolution from a Pixies-esque group into brilliant musicians is stunning and exciting to follow. The fruits of their labor are four of the most essential indie records you can own, each dabbling in minimalism, rock, pop, soul, and R&B. Let’s take another trip into the indie world and check out Girls Can Tell, Kill the Moonlight, Gimme Fiction, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
Girls Can Tell: Quiet Improvements// With their 2001 record, Spoon had a real shift in sound that has given direction to each subsequent release. Instead of focusing on loud-quiet dynamics, the band built and seemingly deconstructed each song. Their previous full-length (A Series of Sneaks) would have brought in punk-influenced, jagged distorted guitars. Girls Can Tell is more nuanced. The most “rock” songs of the bunch bridge the gap between their past work and the rest of the record. “Take a Walk” features some of the driving rock and crunchy feel, but is mellowed by the staccato attack (rather than a constant grind). “The Fitted Shirt” operates in a similar space; guitar drives the song, but it’s put further back in the mix.
And this shift away from purely guitar rock is what makes Girls Can Tell so satisfying, so successful. Suddenly, the band can follow different musical directions and aren’t limited by the stylistic bounds of punk or Pixies. Lead singer Britt Daniel now has much more range, much more effective intonation than on any prior Spoon record. That voice is less nasal, giving a very smooth delivery and an instrument that no other band can currently access. Some tracks explore Daniel’s voice in previously-unexplored realms for the band. “Me and the Bean” features the singer leading a piano track without copying “Karma Police” or “Hey Jude,” and “1020 AM” is a quiet reflection with a blend of whispers and tasteful falsetto.
But what makes this record so essentially indie? Certainly the independent record label helps things, but the band takes a slightly unconventional approach to the world of rock. Particularly, the tracks “The Fitted Shirt” and “Chicago At Night” at least nudge at the bounds and expectations of rock music. The former is a surprisingly heartfelt use of a father’s fitted shirt as a metaphor for desiring the past. “Chicago At Night” is a powerful closer, seemingly describing the life of an immigrant (or ethically disenfranchised) woman in the city. Both songs give a real sense of musical inspiration (carefully measured guitars, touching vocals) but also push deeper and have weight (thoughtful lyrics, emotive instrumentation). And this all comes through because Spoon was willing to cut back and give their sounds more space.
Kill The Moonlight: Exploration That Rewards // Now effectively freed from the “tyranny” of straight-ahead rock, Spoon unleashed a free-flowing exploration of all that space and quiet sound that they brought into their sound. Just a year removed from Girls, 2002’s Kill The Moonlight sounds light-years ahead of the previous record. And in a strange kind of way, the band feels at once more spacious and confident. The clearest example of this possible contradiction is in the exceptional “The Way We Get By.” In just 2 minutes and 40 seconds, the band builds slightly-swung piano piece with driving energy and urgent-yet-bright vocals. Spoon sounds completely unified, not a note out of place. And this style exudes a confident cohesion reflected in the lyrical mark “We believe in the sum of ourselves.”
But it’s also what’s missing that makes this track and the rest of the record so good. Needless guitar backdrops or excessive vocal noises are stripped out. Distracting drum fills are completely absent. Quite simply, “The Way We Get By” is exactly what it needs to be, no more and no less. It’s the perhaps the greatest achievement on this record, and it’s a damn fine song to boot (a fun refrain and a spectacular performance by Daniel make it a memorable experience).
Still, it’s not all the minimal sounds that define Moonlight. The proliferation of styles is instantly evident. Opening track “Small Stakes” features almost entirely organ as melodic instrumentation, a sonic and stylistic choice that would seem out of character for the band. But it’s something they pull off with ease and expertise. Central track “Paper Tiger” follows a similar trail with the song stripped of all usual rock setup. Drum stick clicks, heavily looped guitars and sparse pianos form the backbone of the track as Britt Daniel croons lightly above the noise. These two songs simply don’t fit into the Spoon discography until the band is willing to explore.
Also noteworthy is the improvement in production. Instead of the slightly-muffled sound on Girls, Moonlight is clean and open. It’s a change that is welcomed for all instruments, especially as the songs become more minimal. Drum fills are sharper and more meaningful. Pianos become brighter and fuller. Guitars ring and pluck with greater grace and fluidity. Britt Daniel’s voice becomes at once more impressive and more flawed. The almost-smoky rasp in his sound is better heard, thus giving added depth and character to his performances. On Moonlight, Spoon is working to define their sound and drive indie in a direction that hadn’t been explored.
Gimme Fiction: Variations and Refinement // Unlike the previous two records, Gimme Fiction (released in 2005) doesn’t represent a leap forward for Spoon. However, this is not a retread. Fiction is a refinement of the the styles established in Girls and Moonlight but with a more rock n’ roll edge. Don’t confuse this for a regression back to the Pixies-esque material; it’s a push toward louder, more aggressive material while still operating within the confident, coherent minimalism so brilliantly utilized in the 2001 and 2002 records. In no place is this more evident than on the rocker track “Sister Jack.”
It’s hard to hear the song and consider the less-is-more approach, but it’s important to keep in mind the guitar tone and distortion involved. On their earliest records, Spoon would’ve turned “Sister Jack” into an aggressive thrashy jam with snotty vocals and pounding drums. Instead, the guitars sound clean, the singing is built around harmonies, and the drums don’t attack the ears (they’re simply designed to give a direction and some tambourine).
The rest of the record wanders through different permutations of the now-established Spoon sound. “I Turn My Camera On” is the barest of bare-bones jams as the song sits on a very thin edge between excess and no song whatsoever. “They Never Got You” follows the lightly strummed guitar-like-a-keyboard sound to its logical conclusion. Even the real highlight of the album (and top-five song of the past decade) “My Mathematical Mind” seems like the obvious endpoint for a band finding out how best to build a huge song without many parts.
Gimme Fiction is probably the most underrated of the first three Merge Spoon records and is an indie masterpiece thanks to its guitar rock, restless sense of exploration, and reflective lyrics and instrumentation. Thankfully, Spoon didn’t stop here.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: Soul and Pop Power // After three exceptional indie records, Spoon pushed past the previous genre limitations and went for pop, soul, and R&B. With their 2007 release Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the band unearthed more hooks and powerful ear-pleasing sounds than they’d ever seen in the past. Song structures were easy to follow but never strictly ordinary. Instrumentation was more varied and more impressive. Ga Ga featured a more diverse sonic palette accompanied by more precise and assured technical skills.
That that aforementioned soul and R&B take hold on “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog.” A tight horn section, bells/marimba, bright pianos and a wonderful vocal performance (hopping from breathless falsetto to trademark croon) makes “Cherry Bomb” sound both effortless and inspired. “The Underdog” follows a similar path but with sharper lyrics and a more acidic delivery from Daniel as he intones (and threatens) “That’s why you will not survive!”
The new styles and musical ideas are certainly refreshing, but the main highlight of Ga Ga is the sudden change to an album of highlight after highlight. Every other Merge release saw Spoon playing a full set of excellent tunes but with a few true high points leading the way on each record (“The Fitted Shirt” or “Chicago At Night” on Girls, “The Way We Get By” on Moonlight, “My Mathematical Mind” on Fiction). On Ga Ga it’s damn near impossible to pick a track that’s absolutely head-and-shoulders above the rest. You might be tempted to pick lead singles “The Underdog” or the bouncing, pop piece “Don’t You Evah.” But then you’d remember that the driving opener “Don’t Make Me a Target” and “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” weren’t even charting singles from the record.
And that also ignores the shocking and powerful “The Ghost of You Lingers” or the wounded, confessional “Black Like Me.” Perhaps more than the other songs on the record, “Black Like Me” gives a peak into the soul of the band. Daniel opens with a pained plea, “I’m in need of someone to take care of me tonight.” It’s a powerful contrast from the bright noises associated with “The Underdog” or “Don’t You Evah.” And therein lies that indie magic again: Spoon touches on complex emotions, and explores unique directions of rock music without becoming a caricature.
//Spoon succeeds as an indie band because they manage to strike a balance between arty exploration and entertaining, catchy pop-rock. They never stray too far into the emotional as to become melodramatic, they never linger in classic rock too long as to seem stagnant, and they don’t push the boundaries so much as to become inaccessible.
Their first four records on Merge are some of the most impressive documents of the indie rock genre and can be a solid foundation for either those making a first brush with indie or alternative fans looking for an exceptional fallback option. Take a few minutes to check out some of the links in this article or hit Spoon on Spotify to see what they’re all about. Relentless exploration, solid musicianship, and expert songwriting can combine to make a powerful indie experience. In these four records, Spoon are one of the best you can find.