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Spoon’s sad tale of record-industry woe begins with a very good EP. Released in 1997, the seven-track Soft Effects was the breakthrough follow-up to the Austin, Texas, band’s full-length debut, Telephono, released the year before. The EP, as produced by the semilegendary John Croslin (of Zeitgeist/Reivers fame), made good on the promise of the band’s Pixies-inflected album. Alternating between vaguely psychedelic guitar pop and thumping, atonal statement-makers, Soft Effects earned the band favorable comparisons to noise-mongering luminaries such as Pavement and, especially, Guided by Voices, whose Rob Pollard apparently taught Spoon leader Britt Daniel a thing or two about the advantages of singing with an occasional British accent.

But in those days of fervent alternative nationalism—not to mention the massive success of Green Day—the men of Spoon had their eyes on a prize larger than being merely a garage band in Garageland. With Daniel’s gravel road of a voice and, more important, his ability to limn even the crustiest guitar skronk with seductive, Beatles-inspired melody, how long could it possibly be before this power trio got the major-label deal it so obviously deserved and became the newest little ol’ band from Texas? Not that long, as it turned out. Elektra came calling, and, unlike many of their call-screening slacker brethren, the members of Spoon actually picked up the phone, signing with the major and taking on all that that implies.

Sort of. In Spoon’s case, signing with a major implied recording exactly one terrific album (A Series of Sneaks) and then getting unceremoniously dropped while the disc’s shrink wrap was still hot. A bitter two-track CD followed, whose songs, “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now” and “The Agony of Laffitte,” were each aimed squarely at the group’s A&R man, Ron Laffitte—but also at the band’s label and, more generally, at a phenomenon the novelist Camden Joy characterized as “total systems failure” in a widely read Village Voice piece about the band. The trenchant “Laffitte” tracks followed in the great industry-blasting tradition of Graham Parker’s “Mercury Poisoning” (“[I’m] the best kept secret in the West”), the Sex Pistols’ “EMI” (“I can’t stand the useless fools”), and John Fogerty’s “Zanz Kant Danz” (“Watch him or he’ll rob you blind”). A slightly less volatile EP came next (Love Ways), but, unsurprisingly, when we last heard Spoon, the group seemed destined to be remembered, if at all, primarily for Daniel’s piercing, 20/20 vision when looking back in anger.

But on “Everything Hits at Once,” the first track on the band’s new LP, Girls Can Tell, Daniel makes it sound as if that’s all behind him now. “Don’t say a word,” he sings, sounding tired of the argument. “The last one’s still stinging.” With his band augmented by vibes and Mellotron, and gravitating dangerously in the direction of Gaucho-period Steely Dan, Daniel serves up a slow-motion guitar riff so hazy it sounds as though it’s drifting in from an open window. That riff recurs throughout the song, guiding it gently away from an MOR precipice and back toward the languid guitar atmospherics of indie contemporaries Yo La Tengo and Luna. A similar tension shows up in the lyrics, which find Daniel unable to decide whether he’s pissed off, resigned, or just indifferent: “I can still change my mind tonight,” he observes halfway through the track. “I gotta change my mind somehow.”

Make up his mind would be more like it. Deep-seated ambivalence is the subtext—and, occasionally, the text—for most of Girls Can Tell. Even the sequencing seems conflicted, with the group careening between bright, chiming pop songs such as the Anglophilic “Lines in the Suit” and jagged, monochromatic workouts such as “The Fitted Shirt.” The latter track, brittle and heavily indebted to Wire, finds the band burrowing insistently for the center of your head via a faux-metal chord progression and a stuttering two-note guitar riff. Meanwhile, Daniel dresses up Spoon’s industry angst in vintage sartorial splendor: “Been looking so long now/And no one’s seen and no one heard/But when I go out tonight/I’m going to put on a fitted shirt.” The manic “Believing Is Art” is less successful, fusing the overdriven guitar sound of the Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog” with a driving rhythm section that ultimately has no place to go. Album closer “Chicago at Night” brings the disc full circle, with Daniel lacing bittersweet guitar lines through an organ sound that Donald Fagen would be proud to call his own. The track almost succeeds on the strength of that musical combination, but it ultimately succumbs to Daniel’s vocal affectations, which this time have him sounding more like Gavin from Bush than John from the Beatles.

Elsewhere, the group offers more convincing takes on the ’60s pop and ’70s punk it so obviously loves. The mannered chamber music of “1020 AM,” which comes complete with multitracked harmonies and a (probably synthetic) flute, sounds positively slaved over, and the rollicking “Anything You Want” may be the best thing Spoon has ever recorded. The track is an effortlessly catchy homage to gifted Brit wannabes Big Star and, especially, actual Brits Badfinger, whose “Day After Day” gets sampled, analog-style, just before the song’s chorus. Also great are the New Wave-ish “Take a Walk”—which, depending on your age, will conjure images of either Paul Weller or Billie Joe pogoing in a skinny tie—and the similarly Jam-happy “Take the Fifth,” a song about a girl “who’s gonna go and promote her own myth.”

In an odd way, that’s precisely what Spoon seems to be doing with Girls Can Tell. An uneven album about uneven times, the album finds Daniel & Co. ensconced back in Indieland again, peering through the window they once smashed. “If there’s anything you want/Come on back ’cause it’s all still here,” Daniel sings on “Anything You Want.” He could be referring to any sort of seemingly comfortable relationship—with a lover, a label, or even an indie scene—but, in his next breath, Daniel pokes a hole in his affirmation: “And if you and me is so right/Why’s it the same thing every night?” Ambivalent to the end, Girls Can Tell is mostly the sound of one man trying very hard to answer that question. CP