"We haven't done a song where it's strumming on the eighth notes real loud for a long time," says Britt Daniel of the Austin band Spoon. He's talking about "Sister Jack," a highlight from his band's latest, Gimme Fiction (Merge), and soon he moves from description to vocal re-creation: "You know, rung rung rung rung rung rung rung rung. We've really shied away from that in the last few albums. So when we're going to do something like that, it has to be special."
True enough. Gimme Fiction, like 2000's Girls Can Tell and 2002's Kill the Moonlight before it, is meticulously crafted and strikingly funky, and it solidifies Spoon as one of indie rock's premier bands. By definition, Daniel is a singer-songwriter, a man who starts all his songs on piano or acoustic guitar and then brings them to his band. But Daniel isn't exactly a lonely artist trying to strum his way around the lyrics that hold the meaning to his songs; instead, Spoon tend to concentrate as much on grooves as on riffs or words. "Lyrics are so important," he says from his Austin home after a European tour opening for Interpol. "But as a song, the first thing that affects me is just the feel of it. Then later I notice the lyrics. To me it has always been about the melody and the feel first, and then if you can have an incredible lyric in there as well, then shit, that's the whole package."
He has a point. Musically, Gimme Fiction absorbs sounds from throughout the pop spectrum while still maintaining a semblance of continuity. Opener "The Beast and Dragon, Adored" typifies the band's style, taking a rote verse-chorus-verse structure and turning it into a haunting, dynamic exercise that hits its climax with Daniel exclaiming, "And when you believe/They call it rock and roll." In the song, that sentiment is borderline nonsensical, but it's true to the album as a whole. "I Turn My Camera On" is the best funk track the band has ever created, a quasi-sequel to the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue"; while "Sister Jack" is one of the crispest jangle-rockers in the Spoon catalog. The achingly contemplative synth-pop of "Was It You?" sounds like a treasure Daniel and drummer Jim Eno (Spoon's other primary member) rescued from a new-wave cutout bin, while "My Mathematical Mind" is all tension: Eno lays down a hypnotic drum line, while Daniel attempts to destroy it with his strained wails and a frantic, disjointed guitar jag. Listening to the album gives you the sense that, yes, something new can be done with indie rock—and with pop music, period.
That said,Gimme Fiction sticks to Spoon's familiar template. The songs rarely veer from a steady midtempo, and Daniel is still embellishing everything with guttural moans—uh-huhs and mmm-hmms pepper nearly every track. It's barely noticeable as a device, but it helps give Spoon's songs an urgency and vitality that sets them apart from indie rock's often constricted emotional palette. Including, to some degree, Spoon's own: As its title suggests, Fiction is full of oblique lyrics ("I turned my feelings off/You made me untouchable for life," from "Camera On"), the only constant being Daniel's second-person storytelling, which put the listener at a kind of friendly arm's length and lend even the passionate stuff an air of mystery.
That sense was present on Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight, too, but it deepens on Gimme Fiction, most clearly on "Sister Jack," which sounds surprisingly straightforward in this company. Listen closer, though, and you'll notice the various musical fragments ricocheting about the mix: sampled hip-hop shout outs, a riotous noise-guitar solo, an outro drum beat that gives the illusion of the song coming apart, held up solely by its own momentum.
That's not quite how it worked in the album's making, though. Daniel and Eno cut up to 40 takes for dozens of songs that weren't even included. That's one reason Gimme Fiction took longer to complete than the band's previous two albums. Another is that Spoon's rapidly escalating popularity (Gimme Fiction sold 20,000 copies its first week and debuted in Billboard's album chart at 44—a stunning figure for a cult indie band) leaves Daniel with less time to work on his songs. "Lots of times business stuff gets in the way," he says. "Or life stuff. Like today—I'd love to be writing a song, but I just got back into town, and I've got a million things to do before I leave town again on Sunday. I've probably had around 80 e-mails today. It's kind of insane." It's only going to get worse.
Spoon play the Showbox with the Clientele at 8 p.m. Sat., June 18. $15.