Joshua Bayer: Spooning with greatness

BY JOSHUA BAYER
Daily Music Columnist
Published January 30, 2010

For those of you who follow the ratings game, the votes are in, and the best band of the last decade was officially — gasp — Spoon. At least according to Metacritic, the Internet’s leading aggregator of art reviews. So what does this mean exactly? It means that, out of all the bands who have had three or more albums reviewed on this particular website, Spoon’s average album score was the highest (clocking in at an 85.3 out of 100, scooting just in front of Sigur Rós with 83.5 and Super Furry Animals with 82.5).

I know what you’re thinking: So the fuck what? These are just numbers. These averages don’t even remotely represent a band’s staying power or innovative scope, nor do they represent people’s individual opinions. Just because Spoon had the highest average album score of the decade doesn’t mean any individual human actually thinks they were the best band of the decade — or even that they’re anyone’s favorite band, period.

But let’s stop for a second and actually talk about the band itself. Spoon. What a perfect name for such a deceptively simple group. Hailing from Austin, Texas, these perpetual indie-rock underdogs — at least until their 2007 single “The Underdog” ironically flirted with mainstream radio appeal — aren’t out to the change the world. Like any layman’s spoon, Spoon (the band) is bright without being flashy. As my kid brother once said, “My issue with Spoon is that I feel like I could play all of their songs.” And I don’t doubt him.

The band’s riff-heavy formula of drums, bass, guitar and keys, without much technical virtuosity or formal innovation, sounds pretty vanilla on paper. And it can be argued that frontman Britt Daniel essentially doesn’t know how to play the guitar. His parts usually consist of an angular back-and-forth between a few simple chords, and his solos rarely elevate above the ground of electrified scribbling. But, like any great band, Spoon knows how to write a great song. And even if you think you could play all of their songs while wiping your ass, the truth is you didn’t write them. And you probably couldn’t either.

The component parts of Spoon’s music are anything but special — wiry drums, ghostly keys, sharp-toothed guitars and tire-thick basslines. But the way Spoon’s songs play out is nothing less than spellbinding. Spoon’s aesthetic may sound simple on the surface, but if you actually perk your ear up for more than 30 seconds, you’ll quickly notice that the band is the epitome of OCD-caliber perfection.

All of Spoon’s compositions are fussed over to the nth degree, with every last handclap and shaker burst stabbing into the mix at exactly the right moment. While Spoon’s practically minimalistic sound feels almost frustratingly unadorned and empty at times, Spoon is undeniably a studio band. The gaping void felt between the monomaniacal drum machine pulse and the spare keyboard jitters on songs like “Small Stakes” is purely intentional — when the tambourine kicks in halfway through the track, it feels like a revelation rather than a flourish.

Moreover, the band has easily written some of the catchiest songs of the past decade. Britt Daniel is a hook machine. Every cocksure “whoo-hoo” and clipped syllable that half-fires half-tumbles out of his mouth is chewy enough to build an entire song around. “The Way We Get By” even managed to sneak its way onto the soundtrack for “The O.C.”

But where Spoon truly shines is its rhythm section — which is, essentially, the entire band. While Britt Daniel’s guitar skills have never really graduated beyond garage band status, he is a master when it comes to writing a hook and shredding it up rhythmically over the course of a song. He may be playing the same note over and over again, but he throws enough corkscrews in there to keep you on the edge of your seat. And as far as basslines go, Spoon trumps all — I don’t know what they put in their sound waves to get such fat, rubbery bass throbs, but I do know that Spoon is going to be at least one-third of the reason I go deaf before 50.

So is Spoon the band of the decade? Probably not. While they’ve continuously twisted their formula enough to juice four stellar albums out of little more than an ungodly penchant for airtight production and spring-loaded timing, they’re just not massive enough in scale to ever match up against a behemoth like Radiohead. But they just might have been the most consistent band of the decade. And if this month’s unsurprisingly stellar Transference is any indication, they just might keep trucking along into the ’10s.