“Hey, were you at the Broken Social Scene gig last night? My boyfriend says he saw you there”
Oh dear. Please don’t say that you saw me yelling at anyone.
“Oh, did he say that for any particular reason?”
“No, just that you were there.”
Phew. Despite being one of the biggest cities in Europe, London is still fundamentally a small place. Go and see a certain type of band – your Nationals and your Elbows, your Bonnie Prince Billys and your Devendra Banharts – and you’ll start seeing a few familiar faces. It’s quite a nice thing really, knowing that there’s a big bunch of people with a similar taste in thoughtful indie-rock with a bit of alt-country/folk/soul/disco1 thrown in for good measure.
Spoon fall happily into that crowd. They’ve been around for donkeys years, long enough for singer and guitarist of Wye Oak Jenn Wasner to say that they were her favourite band when she was fifteen. Fifteen! How old are you, love? Being around for fifteen or so years makes that kind of statement kind of funny; especially from a personal perspective, given that they’ve been a highly touted indie-rock band for most of that time and I’ve completely ignored them until this year.
What got me interested was the buzz/hype/gossip/shamelessly overblown PR guff (delete as appropriate) about their new CD, Transference. Who were this mystery band, I wondered to myself? Curiosity piqued, I gave it a go, and quite enjoyed it. Sure, it’s hardly the most adventurous record (they ain’t Tortoise), but the precision and purity of their music was intriguing, and they seemed to delight in unsettling you by stopping their songs very sudd. A visit to a live show beckoned.
Better still, after getting the tickets the support act was confirmed as being Wye Oak. They are a band I’ve been fond of since I first started this blog and came across their first record If Children…. Since then, they’ve released a second CD (which I don’t have) and have been recording a third. Comes as a bit of a surprise then that the band don’t play any of the well-known material off their debut, which is a shame, as some of it (the title track, “Obituary” and “Warning” in particular) is excellent. Still, the new stuff sounds great, mixing Throwing Muses with a bit of dark country. And they are a musically great pair; Jenn playing some mean guitar, and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack somehow playing drums and keyboards simultaneously. Great trick, that. Charming folks too. Not quite in Tortoise/James Blackshaw Horrendously Good Support Act territory then, but good enough.
Spoon themselves have the demeanour of a band that have been doing this for a loooong time. That utter confidence of just wandering onto stage and playing your songs and knowing that you’re going to rock. Helps too that their music doesn’t have a massive amount of embellishment on record, feeling like someone’s got them into a studio and recorded them live. What you see is what you get with Spoon – a Krautrock style drumbeat, mostly unchanged throughout the song; a bassline, sometimes with a touch of disco thrown in; guitar riffs that sit on top of this solid rhythm section foundation and muck about for a bit; obtuse lyrics; and songs that stop sudde.
And on the whole this works pretty well. The songs don’t have the emotional edge that separate The National and Elbow from their peers; I doubt somehow that they would want that, anyway. The band are enviably tight, with little slack or flab. Noticeably their newer material seems sharper, more in-focus than their older songs, though whether that’s just me, I’m not sure. But the problem is that they don’t seem any more alive than they are on record. Yes, it’s fun to watch songs like “Is Love Forever?” and “Got Nuffin”, in all their tense joy, come to a sudden halt, but after a while the thrill starts to pall. Later on, a horn section comes on to parp away on a few songs, like “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” (or “Cherry Balm” as the set list has it), which at least adds a bit of variety to the drums/bass/guitar/keyboard sound.
There are, of course, highlights. “Who Makes Your Money” was surprisingly good; one of the songs that impressed more live than on record. “Cherry Bomb” is definitely enlivened by the parping, and “No-One Gets Me But You”‘s disco bassline (really) worked beautifully well.
A cover of Wolf Parade’s “Modern World” highlights their problem. On record, Wolf Parade’s original has a near-deranged air, the sound of a band on the edge of a nervous breakdown. You’re compelled to listen because you suspect, possibly correctly, that it’s all about to go horribly wrong. But Spoon’s version is precise, clear, and loses that dangerous feel.
I suppose there’s two types of bands you see live. The ones which are magical, that transcend their recorded output to produce something more vital, more thrilling, more alive (sorry) than captured in the billions of bytes of an MP3 file or CD. These one fundamentally change the relationship you have with them, forging a strong bond that keeps you going back to their records, re-evaluating them, and bringing you back for more (for me, in recent years, Tortoise, Sufjan Stevens, American Music Club, Mew and others have done this).
Then there are the ones that come on stage and play their songs, and their songs are perfectly pleasant, and they are played excellently, and the live experience gives you a little insight into the band’s inner lives, but they aren’t those strange mystical, transcendent events. And sad to say, this is where Spoon fell with me. “Expertly boring” said a friend of mine, and he’s hit the nail on the head. Don’t get me wrong; they’re a good band, and “Transference” is great, but live, they’re nothing that special. Or maybe I was just suffering from Gig Overload. Who knows?2
1 You’ll see.
2 And writing gig reviews two weeks after the event may not help either.