When the Austin indie-rock band Spoon released their first LP, Telephono, in 1996, they were acolytes of the Pixies’ raucous aesthetic; every one of their songs was under constant threat of being overwhelmed by distorted guitars and unchecked, anarchic enthusiasm. Over the years, though, lead singer Britt Daniel and his group have corralled their wilder instincts and mastered the art of song sculpture, like Buddhist monks with a sand mandala. On recent albums, each cymbal crash, maraca shake and guitar squeal is deliberately placed; not a single note sounds uninhibited or improvised. After 15 years, Spoon has evolved into a band for lovers of order, self-control, freshly cut grass and finely tailored clothing.
Which helps explain their success. No one has more respect for the crisply drawn line and the clear idea than advertisers, marketers and TV producers, and ever since their 2002 album, Kill the Moonlight, Spoon’s elegantly crafted songs have been ubiquitous parts of the American cross-marketing landscape. Unlike other successful indie bands, with Spoon you get cool without contempt and distortion without malice. There’s no real danger—only the hint of recklessness, like a cold Budweiser at the end of the workweek or a fast drive down a desert highway in a brand-new car.
Hear Spoon’s latest album and watch live videos at www.myspace.com/spoon.
From early on, Daniel and crew were canny and embraced the new reality of the record industry – that the rise of file-sharing and social networking has turned record-buying into a dying ritual. Bands that 10 years ago would have looked at licensing songs to ad firms or television shows as “selling out” now see it as a necessary first step on the path to success. Artists like Feist, Of Montreal, Jet and dozens of others have built their careers off of well-placed songs, but none of them has done it with the pervasiveness or the success of Spoon.
In the last eight years, Spoon songs have appeared on Veronica Mars, The O.C., The Simpsons and Scrubs; as the background music for video games Pro BMX 2 and MLB 09: The Show; in commercials for the Acura TSX and the Jaguar XK Coupe; and in numerous movies. Somewhere along the way, someone figured out that the market value of Spoon’s music doesn’t lie in its beauty, but in that beauty’s ability to sell a lifestyle.
It doesn’t hurt that the band writes such irresistible songs. Take their newest single, “Written in Reverse,” from the album Transference, to be released Jan. 19. It begins with a piano and a drum set pounding in unison to a simple quarter-note beat. Many of Spoon’s recent songs have played with the tension and release that builds naturally out of repeated, minimal rhythms. The introduction of “Written in Reverse” feels like pistons moving up and down. By the time the first bass note appears, listeners are hungry for the slightest change. Spoon knows the perfect moment to drop in a new element—an open hi-hat cymbal, a single guitar pluck—for the greatest impact. They’ve learned the lessons of the dance floor.
“Written in Reverse” is a great song. It’s heavy, melodic and danceable—a combination more easily imagined than pulled off. It also sounds tailor-made for marketing. Once again, I have to resign myself to the fact that Spoon has trifled with my affections and forced me to fall in love with a song that might show up tomorrow in an ad for a toaster oven or a romantic comedy starring Matthew McConaughey.
Contributing writer Josh Rosenblatt lives in Austin.