We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Leave it to Bud, the hollow-eyed epitome of Repo Man-hood, to lay down the elusive appeal of rock ‘n’ roll in one six-word sentence. “Ordinary fucking people,” he says, his synapses crackling from a healthy snort of crystal meth, “I hate ’em.”
No true child of the post-Elvis world, no matter how avowedly egalitarian, proletarian, or democratic, can spurn those words; they constitute rock’s rebel yell and its only creed. Because let’s face it: Disgust with ordinary fucking people is what drove most of us into the arms of rock ‘n’ roll in the first place.
Rock music has always meant escape from the world of the ordinary: escape from school, escape from work, escape from the drab realities of life and death. Growing up, I didn’t know much, but I knew that Keith Richards—whose defiant refusal to act in accordance with the immutable laws of science by dropping stone dead was proof positive that slipping the yoke of cause and effect was indeed possible—spoke truth when he croaked, “Never want to be like papa/Working for the boss every night and day.”
It was no accident that my first pop heroes were Elton John and David Bowie. Captain Fantastic and Ziggy Stardust were larger than life; they both partook of the fabulous. Of course, over the years this preference has caused me to overlook, pooh-pooh, or even sneer at more than a few excellent bands that I adjudged to be, well, lacking in the strangeness department. Like the Beatles. Or, for that matter, Spoon, one of the best damn bands I’ve ever tried not to fall in love with. Its new album, Kill the Moonlight, will invariably worm its way into my top 10 for 2002. So why didn’t I absolutely adore this band from Day One?
That’s simple: Britt Daniel, Spoon’s frontman, has none of the characteristics I look for in a rock ‘n’ roll hero. He is neither prone to inscrutable onstage fits nor inclined to hurl himself from third-story windows for kicks. He’s not manic, shamanic, satanic, sarcastic, spastic, Byronic, Britannic, or even faintly messianic. Nor he does he seem to be attempting to exorcise, through his music, that murder of crows that roosts, calling shrilly, inside all of our skulls. In short, he does not appear, to use the Buddhists’ wonderful phrase, to be living every moment as if his hair were on fire. Call me shallow, but for me this is generally the kiss of death.
No, Daniel is simply the singer-songwriter-guitarist for a trio that hails from Austin, Texas, and that swiped its name from a Can song. He’s an average-looking fellow in an average-looking band that just happens to have released four consistently excellent full-length albums since 1996. Albums of such immaculate songcraft, tight playing, and perfect form-equals-content fidelity to the Platonic ideal of snaggletoothed power pop that the only other artist I can think to compare Daniel with is This Year’s Model-era Elvis Costello.
Daniel has always laid heavy emphasis on studio ringers to fill out the band’s bare-bones sound, particularly in the keyboard department. As a result, the difference between one album’s excellence and another’s sheer unadulterated wonderfulness has often hinged less on Daniel’s songwriting than on his choice of sidemen. Thus, my biggest and indeed only reservation about 2001’s Girls Can Tell is that the keyboards were too wimpy. The inclusion of Mellotron and vibes—principally on the opening track, “Everything Hits at Once,” smoothed away too many of the band’s sharp edges. Though this and other flourishes—such as the too-close-for-comfort Police-isms of “Lines in the Suit”—were undeniably welcome signs of Daniel’s interest in exploring new musical textures, they filled yours truly with fear and trembling for the band’s future.
I needn’t have worried. This time out, Daniel delegated the keyboard chores to one Eggo Johanson. The choice was an inspired one. From the distorted synth riff that anchors opening track “Small Stakes” to the majestic piano notes that help to push closer “Vittorio E.” to orgiastic heights, Johanson’s simple but muscular playing provides the perfect complement to Daniel’s angular guitar line and Jim Eno’s never-less-than-inspired drum work. Not since Billy Preston manned the ‘boards for the Beatles has a sideman stepped in to play so central a role in the sound of a rock record.
And what a sound it is. I hear echoes of Nirvana, Thin Lizzy, Tom Petty, Guided by Voices, and, of course, the Beatles, but that’s all they are: echoes. Like John Fogerty, Daniel has managed—and I mean from the very first song on Spoon’s very first album, Telephono—to create a sound that is both eerily familiar and yet undeniably his very own.
Daniel’s lyrical persona is that of a pot-smoking, Iggy-listening, small-town loser, the kind of guy who believes nothing ventured is nothing lost and who measures his life in bong hits. In “Small Stakes,” he sings, not very convincingly, “Me and my friends sell ourselves/Short but feel very well/We feel fine,” while on the wonderful anti-anthem “The Way We Get By” he sings, “We get high in back seats of cars/We break into mobile homes/We go to sleep to Shake Appeal/Never wake up on our own/And that’s the way we get by.”
But the persona is belied by Spoon’s incredible tightness. If you want to know what a pot-smoking, Iggy-listening, small-town loser really sounds like, I suggest you check out San Francisco’s all-time greatest band, Flipper. If it’s a pop-obsessed master songwriter you’re looking for, try Spoon. “Paper Tiger” comes at you with a restrained but unstoppable force, all coiled energy and hints of danger. “Jonathon Fisk” is smartass Petty-style New Wave backed by jack-rabbit guitars, a punchy beat, and a natty but discreet horn section; Daniel sings obliquely about “atom bombs and blunt razors” before telling us, “You’re too old to understand.” And “Stay Don’t Go” finds Daniel not only making like a human beatbox but also letting loose with the twistedest—and coolest—falsetto since the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue.” Throw in a sinuous rhythm that twines itself around your spine like a jungle snake and it’s no wonder you’re oozing pure pop bliss.
If I say there isn’t a single merely average tune on Kill the Moonlight, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my personal favorites. And, lucky for me, the band saves them until the very end. “All the Pretty Girls Go to the City” features Daniel’s sly lyrics, Johanson’s Lucy-plinking-out-notes-on-Schroeder’s-piano keyboard work, and a bottom end as driving, savage, and remorseless as Mom laying waste to my hallowed porn collection. Even better is “Back to the Life,” whose demonic laughter, echoing vocals, and funky percussion evoke wonderful memories of both Harry Nilsson’s great “Jump Into the Fire” and Stealers Wheel’s immortal “Stuck in the Middle.” “Go pack your bags/Take up your scythe/’Cause this world wasn’t meant for us both,” sings Daniel, all the drums of hell beating out a tattoo at his back.
“Back to the Life” is the best driving song you’ll never hear on your car radio, and Spoon, which would never leave you all jacked up with no place to go, wisely follows it up with the stately piano- and acoustic-guitar-driven “Vittorio E.” “I took a river and it wouldn’t let go…/I took a river and the river was long and it goes on,” sings Daniel, and I’ll be damned if the band doesn’t flow like the Mighty Mississip behind him. It’s as perfect an album-closer as you’re ever likely to run across.
What’s more, it’s conclusive proof that I’ve been wrong about everything my whole life, including and especially this notion that you’ve somehow got to be insane to make great rock music. That said, as a true son of rock ‘n’ roll, I’m going to go on hating ordinary fucking people, even if I am, in most ways, one of them. Besides, who cares if I’m full of shit? I’ve got my Spoon. If I start shoveling now, I just might see the light someday. CP