Perfectionism and rock‘n’roll don’t tend to go hand in hand. For a style that relies on impromptu miscues and sheer feeling, rock‘n’roll is a label typically reserved for the Rolling Stones-caliber musicians of yore. But Spoon has found a way to combine a perfectionist work habit with the rhythm and soul of traditional rock, creating a tight style that comes off as unruffled and spontaneous as that of the greats.
But while nearly every track the band has recorded throughout its 16-year, seven-LP career sounds like a coolly half-hashed studio demo, frontman Britt Daniel would be the first to admit how carefully planned each track is — background chatter and all.
Transference, the Austin band’s latest, continues the remarkably consistent streak of albums the band has delivered in the past decade, though it is decidedly less hi-fi and radio-ready as its predecessor, 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Spoon opted to self-produce Transference, and the album is a return to the barest elements of what makes the band tick: sparse, carefully-laid instrumentation, Daniel’s cool if not cryptic lyrics and a steady groove.
“Before Destruction” opens the album with Daniel’s acoustic guitar and vocals captured from a distant room mic, making it sound like he’s playing from a few feet behind your speakers. The undressed sound of the first track sets a tone for the rest of the album, in which pop hooks and Daniel’s willfully obscure lyrics are interspersed with longer, more open-ended instrumental jogs.
“Is Love Forever?” is driven by quick, punchy guitars and syncopated vocal rhythms, eschewing additional studio trickery in favor of meat-and-potatoes indie rock. Leading single “Written In Reverse” is more fully formed, with jagged guitars and driving, fuzzed-out bass filling in the gaps between the one-two rhythmic jaunt of piano strikes and drum hits.
“I Saw the Light” and “Goodnight Laura” are also clear standouts, the latter being a rare Spoon ballad. Driven by bare piano and a crooning Daniel, it’d sound just as at home as one of the more sincere, soft-spoken tracks on The Beatles’ The Beatles, better known as “the White Album.”
While the majority of Spoon’s albums have been restricted to a run time of 36 minutes, here the jams run free, making for a more open-ended affair. Though Transference is decidedly less neatly wrapped than Spoon’s previous efforts, it nonetheless maintains the band’s uncanny knack for implanting pop hooks and memorable moments within songs that may have otherwise turned out disjointed and half-formed.
It would have been easy for Spoon to replicate the immediate pop appeal of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, its most successful record to date. Even expected. But expectations are overrated, especially with an album as unassumingly brilliant as Transference. If anything, it acts more as a sequel to the lo-fi minimalism of 2002’s Kill the Moonlight, with eight years of wisdom in production and songwriting clearly gained along the way.
Perfectionists as they are, it seems only logical that the members of Spoon are most in their element when they’re doing it all themselves: “It’s the most that we sounded like us yet,” Daniel said in an interview with the New York Times. And if Transference is any indication, that’s just the way it should be.