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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Prince, Spoon And The Magic Of The Dead Stop

Neumu's Jennifer Kelly writes: During the long interval between the end of Mary Timony's abrasive, post-hardcore set and the beginning of Spoon's show, the loudspeakers at cavernous Pearl Street in Northampton, Massachusetts thudded with the bass-heavy, drum-booming strains of Prince. Extended mixes of body-pummeling tracks like "Let Me Do My Magic" and "Dance Music Sex Romance" showcased the Purple One's sublime mix of minimalism and over-the-top excess, florid orchestration and dead-blank, funk-sudden stops, and led inexorably to some stray thoughts about the latest Spoon album, the one that the band would be highlighting tonight.

It's no secret that Spoon frontman Britt Daniel listened to Prince obsessively during the making of his falsetto-crooned, bare-rhythmed Gimme Fiction, one of this year's best records, and here, if you hadn't made the connection before, it was written in big block letters in tracks like "I Turn My Camera On" and "They Never Got You." The hint's dropped early and often in Spoon's muscular yet restrained rhythm section of Jim Eno and Joshua Zarbo, and in Daniel's smooth soul delivery, yet it's more what you don't hear than what you do that drives the comparison.

Of Prince's "Kiss," Daniel noted two years ago in an interview that "It's very, very minimal, and I think that's part of why it works so well. Almost all of what you're hearing is very simple drum machines that have a kind of delay on them, and then in the background, you hear this really wispy funk guitar, and then just vocal... less will make it better a lot of times." And less, here tonight, was definitely quite effective.

Tonight, Daniel and band mates Jim Eno, Joshua Zarbo and Eric Harvey took the stage in darkness, as a restless crowd stomped and hooted. There were more girls than most bands draw here, some with boyfriends, some in packs near the stage, confirming my hunch that Spoon is sort of a chick band. Maybe it's that romantic falsetto. In any case, the band started with a sluggish, flood-lit version of "The Beast and Dragon Adored," the first track off their latest album, then followed with a much better, much more lively version of "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine." It was here, mid-song, that Spoon executed one of the first of many perfect dead stops — a lurch into syncopated silence, a recovery in absolute unison — that define both this band's funk-leaning minimalism and Prince's sex-tinged danceability.

OK, we're doing the new album in order, I mused — what is this, the CD release party? No, actually not. The next song up was keyboard-driven and new wave melodic "Someone Something" with Eric Harvey pounding out the skinny-tie chords. There were a couple of tunes from the even more pop Girls Can Tell, like old school photos, to show how these boys have grown. "Lines in the Suit" and "Fitted Shirt" with their driving, straight-up rhythms and delicate harmonies, sounded like a relic from a different band, but sound good, very good, after all those years.

Then back to the now, or at least the last spring, of Gimme Fiction, with a shimmering, psyche-heavy rendition of "A Delicate Place" (Harvey had switched back to guitar) and the stark, white-space studded lightness of "I Turn My Camera On". Here Daniel and Eno were in absolute sync, the frontman hitting staccato downbeats on guitar while his drummer answered with thwacked-out snare on the ups. What followed was the easiest, the power-poppiest song on Spoon's latest, "Sister Jack." This song is all about discomfort ("I can't relax/ With my knees on the ground/ And a stick in my back") and yet sees the band as joyful, sure and comfortable as ever. It struck me that metal bands are the fuzziest, happiest memories for indie rock heroes — with Daniel reminiscing about his drop-d days almost as nostalgically as Tweedy for his lost Kiss-covering era.

Spoon are a very good live band, but they are not the sort of band — Sonic Youth, Gang of Four, Constantines, Mahjongg, to pick some random recent examples — that you absolutely cannot understand unless you see them in concert. Their live show is smooth and professional, a good recap of a diverse and interesting career, an enjoyable evening, but it does not take their recorded output into another dimension. However, they do manage to extend and expand some of their more restrained album cuts, upping the ante for the live setting. "Paper Tiger" is one such cut. Live, it starts as it does on Kill the Moonlight, with heavily amplified drumstick clicks, augmented under purple spotlights by Eno's heavy-malleted drumming. The song picks up power and volume, transcending its understated album version, Daniel's vocals glowing as he sings, "I will be there with you when you turn out the lights." In the same way, "Small Stakes" grows dramatically on the stage, starting with Eno churning out a rapid and rimshot-laced rhythm, Harvey's keyboards amping up the rock and Daniel pushing the pace faster than the album's. "Small Stakes" always seemed baroquely pop, yet here it became unmistakably rock.

The band dipped back into its catalog for "Everything Hits at Once," the soul-pop highlight from Girls Can Tell, then brought latecomers back into the game with "The Living End," from the OC soundtrack. The cut caused a visible stir on the floor, and when technical problems snarled a first attempt at "They Never Got You," Daniel cracked, "No, we're just going to play 'The Living End' again, you OC motherfuckers." It wasn't as mean as it sounded — he actually seemed to be in an expansive mood. "We've never played here before," he said at one point, "And to play to this kind of crowd in a new place, that's pretty cool."

At this point, the band played my other favorite song from Gimme Fiction, which is "I Summon You." The song is virtually unchanged from the album version, which itself was almost identical to an earlier demo, but no matter, it's a wonderful song, full of lust and longing and distance, and if you can't identify with the lines, "Oh, no, where are you tonight?" sung with sweet regret, you need to fall in love a couple more times.

Spoon went on from here — with spiky tunes like "The Way We Get By" and smoothly difficult ones like "My Mathematical Mind" — finding the sexual bravado in the high falsetto and the hip-shifting groove in the missing beat. Like Prince, they can be appreciated on different levels, as a superlative pop band or as something altogether more difficult and unique. They both let the white space around the beats define what they do as much as the notes themselves, and they both can stop on a dime, tease your expectations and, when you're more than ready, jump right back in again.

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