I didn't want to act out in public while riding public transportation, motivated by the great rock music on my headphones. So as I clung to the rail, I restrained myself from bobbing my head to the beat and swiveling my hips to the groove. But, I couldn't suppress the grin on my face. Most of the riders wore blank expressions even scowls. Maybe what they needed was a Spoon-full of some of what I was having: Kill the Moonlight.
Stuck in a musical ghetto of sorts, recently I realized that the word "rock" does not a priori need a modifier like "punk," or "proto-" or "post-punk." It seems like everyone is always making an argument that this artist or that band was punk. Maybe punk before their time, and they didn't know it themselves. But punk.
Yet before there was punk, there was rock, and that was plenty bad, and plenty revolutionary. Kids got in trouble just because of rock music, all by itself. They had no idea punk would enter the lexicon back when Little Richard hit the scene in the '50s.
So how refreshing it is to spin Kill the Moonlight and hear rock music. It's an album about the push-pull of restraint versus release; of breaking free of social mores, mediocrity and working-class stasis; of negotiating the thrilling dangers of romantic relationships (or just sex); of bursting through the repression of one's own creativity; and of simply dancing instead of standing stiffly (as is the custom with many indie rockers). Spoon are furthering the best of the rock tradition such solo artists and groups as Chuck Berry, The Beatles, the Stones, and Iggy Pop. It all comes together with Spoon and moves forward.
An extremely talented frontman, bandleader Britt Daniel has a controlled intensity and personal magnetism that throw you off guard. He draws you in like Iggy, but he's elegant. He's a class act, but ballsy. It's an interesting combination. The rhythm section gets the highest marks: clever drummer Jim Eno, with help from returning bassist Joshua Zarbo (plus Roman Kuebler and John Clayton on Moonlight), provides the style and backbone for a sound reminiscent of what Tony and Hunt Sales did for Pop on his classic 1977 solo effort, Lust for Life. There are moments when Eno hits the hi-hats where I get chills down my spine as when I hear Lust. It's not every day I say such things (or get those chills). It feels that enlivening, that rare.
Moonlight, which grows more and more likeable with repeated listens, is Spoon's strongest effort yet, topping 2001's Girls Can Tell and even 1998's A Series of Sneaks. It's more mature but not more grown-up. Heck no! From track one to track 12, the songwriting, playing, singing and production are vibrant and tight.
"The Way We Get By" is a high-spirited love song about kids living on the edge, punctuated by tambourine and handclaps. Daniel's vocals lead an infectious, devil-may-care melody line underpinned by staccato piano and a charismatic bassline, twirly but not overly ornate, in this case played by Daniel. There's no guitar. Bold lyrics ("We get high in back seats of cars/ We break into mobile homes") express ideas risky to say aloud in 2002, especially in Texas. (Spoon are from Austin.) How refreshing! References to The Stooges' famous second and third albums, 1970's Fun House and 1973's Raw Power, as well as to Lust for Life, add depth and history. The line "We make love to some weird sin" refers directly to "Some Weird Sin," the song Pop co-wrote with David Bowie in Berlin for Lust, about what in society might propel a person away from the proverbial "straight and narrow." As in a rock 'n' roll Singing in the Rain, Daniel sings, "We go out in stormy weather" as if to say, "Have you noticed we're alive? Let's experience this moment! Let's fly in the face of reason!" The song indeed bursts with lust for life.
"Something to Look Forward To" is one of rock's top 10 sexiest songs ever, with a dash of sweetness. It opens with Daniel seductively plucking strings on his guitar, getting an angular sound in a circular pattern. You hear Daniel's count and a groan from the gut; one channel turns off and then the other channel comes in, right on the drum hit. Played loud or with headphones, it's subtly disorienting (in a good way), and sets the song up for the slithering energy that runs through it. The melody is full of beautiful pathos and stirring riffs broken up by drums, and the rhythm is the rhythm of well, what boys and girls do, presumably, well, not in public, rubbing against each other and trying not to.... Let's just say it's a hot song and may even betray the inner workings of the male mind at its most rakishly gentleman-like.
About an aggressive bully, the speedy "Jonathan Fisk" follows the boy-girl intensity of "Something to Look Forward To" and mirrors it with its own boy-boy intensity ("Jonathan Fisk speaks with his fists"). The opening riff sounds like a reference to Chuck Berry; when a sound in Spoon suggests another artist or band, it's an homage, not a rip-off: Daniel and Eno are paying respect. Also, "mistakes" are scattered across the album, lending it an immediate feel, as if you're right there in the studio. At the start of "Jonathan Fisk," for instance, there's Daniel's sexy groan; then the engineer calls out, "I like it!"
Some Spoon fans have complained that Moonlight's lyrics are stripped-down compared to the earlier albums, but the new album is not about showcasing the lyric in the Bob Dylan or Will Oldham sense of composing a tune for a poem. Rather, lyrics are often subsumed into the songs here such that they help build rhythm, sound and an overall impression and they leave the listener with a thought. It's a case of less is more: snippets of phrases come through, the important parts that Daniel wants you to hear. In "Jonathan Fisk," Daniel's delivery of "Religion don't mean a thing/ It's just another way to be right wing" makes that line stand out as an idea separate from the song's context, but it also counterpoints its musical force. On "Stay Don't Go," the line "Sometimes telling the truth is the best way out" came from an unrelated source, a book Daniel was reading on Rwanda. In the song, however, it helps form rhythm, and effectively creates a vibe of ethical, emotional or romantic urgency (it's hard to say which, and that ambiguity is part of the charm). By the way, "Stay Don't Go" is a highly danceable number, with a groove that's hard to stand still for (even while riding the bus).
Another highly danceable song with a super-catchy and smile-inducing tune (bravo!) is "You Gotta Feel It," which rejoices in right-brained thinking. Daniel sings "Don't take notes/ Just clear out your mind/ Let go your pride/ Feel it inside," and Matt Brown's sax takes the song a few degrees higher. The effect is an unforgettable, ineffable je ne sais quoi it's too great.
The really good rock albums (no matter what adverb you use to modify the word "rock") are the ones you put on to wash dishes how else do you make it fun? In your own kitchen, as you splash in the bubbles and absorb the sound, you can act out, unrestrained, as much as you wanna. I guess I've been listening to too much indie rock. I'm real scared about what's going to happen when I see Spoon on their West Coast tour in October. I might dance in public.