In honor of Spoon’s show at the 9:30 Club on Friday evening, I figured it’d be a good time to break out the Spoon Discography Power Rankings. I’ll start by noting how insane it is that this show sold out two weeks in advance. But I guess when you get that heavy feature on The O.C. these things are bound to happen. It doesn’t hurt to have many major rock critics adopt you as their cause du jour, either. I’m happy that Spoon has made it. They certainly deserve it. The fact that they are doing it all while on Merge Records makes it a classic indie rock fairy tale. But it doesn’t change one simple fact: This is not the band that it once was.
I’m not just saying that to be completely contrary. That’s only part of the reason. But the thing is, Spoon was going to be the Next Great Rock Band. It was a near certainty. They were going to be the next Pixies, except maybe even better because they dug Wire just as much. Britt Daniel was going to change the world with his music, he was confident of this. You could hear it in his voice. But the indie rock gods had their way with him. You deal with major labels, shit happens. Here is a pretty good article I found that talks about the whole ordeal with Elektra and Laffitte.
My theory is that after said ordeal, Daniel’s spirit was broken. He put everything he had into that record, he played the game with the big shots and it was all for nothing. It’s very similar to my theory on Pavement post-Wowee Zowee. If you’ll remember, that’s when Matador had just signed a distribution deal with Atlantic, and Pavement (along with Liz Phair) were the main hopes for breakout success. Malkmus put everything he had into WZ, went and played Lollapalooza, the whole thing. And the album got shit reviews and sold nothing. I remember reading an interview only a few months after it came out, asking if there would be another single after “Father to a Sister of Thought” and his response was something along the lines of “Let’s not talk about WZ, she's dead.” Probably as spoken to him from some vice president from Atlantic.
Anyway, back to Spoon. After the Laffitte ordeal, Spoon changed. Maybe they would have changed anyway. But they transitioned from a smart, brash guitar rock band to a cheeky, clever piano pop band. That might be simplifying things too much, but the signature sound of those early Spoon albums is Daniel’s guitar, and except for the few token rockers, guitar is certainly not at the forefront of their sound since then. Again, maybe this was the direction that they would have gone anyway. But it still feels like everything post-Series of Sneaks lacked that certain vitality. Anyway, let’s rank this discography.
1. A Series of Sneaks
It was a tough call for the top spot. I went back and forth many times before finally deciding on Sneaks, figuring that a very nearly perfect album barely gets by a perfect EP. And the double-bonus tiebreak went to Sneaks because the “Woo!” after “from here until empire staaaaaaaaaaaate” is one of the Great Moments in Rock History. That’s what I’m talking about when I say that Spoon was going to change the world. You can hear it, just from that single “Woo!” At least I can. Quite simply, this is a landmark record. And nobody fucking heard it when it came out because the band was dumped from their label three weeks or so after it’s release. The first time I ever saw Spoon play it was mere days after they were dumped. But more on that in just a bit.
The first seven songs on this album are as perfect as can be. Britt sings like he has a handful of marbles very strategically placed very strategically in his mouth, Jim Eno (the secret ingredient to Spoon’s success) bangs the drums with absolute precision, especially on the “The Guest List/Execution” and “30 Gallon Tank” and boy does that guitar sound good. “Car Radio” is everything right about rock music condensed into 89 seconds. It’s not like some Wire songs that would just stop after a minute or two; this is a complete thought, with a beginning, middle and end. Quite an achievement. The album’s second half isn’t quite as perfect, but “Advance Cassette” hinted at the pop genius living inside Daniel. Listen to this record, then listen to Girls Can Tell or Kill the Moonlight or the new one. Then honestly try and tell me this one isn’t better.
2. Soft Effects
Along with Watery, Domestic and Vs. the Greatest of All Time, one of those perfect ’90s indie rock EPs. There’s not a single problem with this record. Each of the five songs is perfect. This came right before Sneaks and it has that same basic sound, perhaps a little more textured, less “oil-and-gas-fumed” (I stole that from this review of the new record; I like that term). “Waiting For the Kid to Come Out” is just a notch below “Car Radio” in terms of perfection. Another song where Jim Eno really asserts himself. “Mountain to Sound” is aptly named, thick guitars building for four minutes.
Anyway, this was my introduction to Spoon, and it was sort of by accident. I won’t go into the details, but for some reason back in high school I was a bit friendly with the guys in Harvey Danger. You may remember them from such alternative radio staples as “Flagpole Sitta.” One of the perks of their fame was that they got to pick the openers for their tour, and they picked Spoon. So I went to 9:30 Club and proceeded to be blown away by this opening band whose lead singer seemed incredibly pissed off. As the HD drummer would later tell me it was because they just got dropped. Anyway, he told me that it would be a huge mistake if I left the club that night without purchasing Soft Effects. He said I would need to get Sneaks eventually, but should start with Soft Effects. See, there’s a reason I’ve always had a soft spot for Harvey Danger.
3. Gimme Fiction
Maybe it’s the thrill of the new, but I’m pretty sure this is the best of the “new era” Spoon records. A little bit of the swagger is back – I think. “My Mathematical Mind” is a pretty perfect amalgam of old and new Spoon, laying into a good groove with a bunch of little things happening in the background. “The Beast and Dragon Adored” is like “Everything Hits at Once,” except it has a better vocal melody and less precious lyrics. “I Turn My Camera On” is a better faux-funk tune than Beck has been able to pull off in many years, and “Sister Jack” makes you wish that “token” wasn’t the word that went in front of “rocker” when talking about recent Spoon records. It still doesn’t come anywhere close to the above two, but there’s very little wrong with this album.
I was tempted to put this one above Gimme Fiction and I probably enjoy it a bit more because the highlights are higher, but a good third to half of the album is pretty standard Pixies-rock. But “All The Negatives Have Been Destroyed,” “Nefarious,” “Government Darling” and “Plastic Mylar” are the kinds of songs that all rock bands dream of being able to have for the debut album. Between my vinyl copy of this and my original Soft Effects CD I’ve got about $100 worth of rare Spoon releases. Hooray for me.
5. Girls Can Tell
The Loveways EP came before this, so I was somewhat prepared for the departure, but it still caught me a bit off guard. All that piano on “Everything Hits at Once” and “Me and the Bean,” what the fuck?! I got used to it over time, and those are fine songs, but there’s still a distant feel to this album. Intentional, no doubt, and it does work for the most part. What doesn’t work is “The Fitted Shirt” with that ridiculous Zeppelin riff-off. (New fun term!) I knew things had gone sort of wrong because the most rocking track on the album, “Take a Walk,” is forced and boring. “Take the Fifth” is pretty fun with its minimal instruments and bevy of handclaps and “Chicago at Night” is a perfect album closer. But there’s just not a huge number of songs here that really grab you.
6. Kill the Moonlight
I don’t know how some people hail this as Spoon’s masterpiece. To me it’s clearly the weakest full length in their discography, an album I haven’t listened to in well over a year. The piano is downright annoying on some songs here. “The Way We Get By” and “Someone Something” aren’t bad songs by any means, but it’s hard to listen to them with that insistent pounding. Especially when you’ve got “Jonathan Fisk,” that one “token rocker,” which just puts the rest of this album to shame. By the time it gets to the second half of the album, the repetitive piano-bouncers start blending into each other. “Don’t Let it Get You Down,” “All the Pretty Girls Go to City” … these just aren’t very good songs. Everyone of the other albums is at least a B+. This one is a B-.
For some reason I find the piano-bounce on “Jealousy” here to be less annoying than on most other tunes where it’s employed. Still, this is pretty inessential stuff. “Chips and Dip” is a keeper, too, but Soft Effects:Loveways::Bagel Bites:Hot Pockets.
8. Laffitte Single
Here’s how down-and-out and unknown Spoon was just a few years ago. I have a vivid (well, for me, at least) memory of the day this CD single came into the radio station. I was in the music director’s office with a group of people whose collective opinion on music I greatly respected. I am pretty sure MZ was among those present. When the Saddle Creek package was opened (one reason I’ll always not totally hate Conor – he at least helped resurrect Britt and Spoon), there was great indifference until I saw that it was Spoon and got very excited. “Holy shit, Spoon still exists!” My excitement was met with mockery, which was how most of my emotions were met back then, but still, I was disappointed in my peers. They laughed and thought it was funny that I was excited about this band that had “Laffitte” in both of the song titles.
Anyway, this was part of Britt’s recovery process, obviously. Slightly better than throwaway quality (at least for Spoon). I never added the single because I figured people didn’t deserve it. And now it’s another piece of my Spoon rarities collectible set.