Music News & Reviews

Spoon's rise to fame has been gradual but steady

If you were to graph the trajectory of Spoon's career, the band's sharp peaks and valleys would resemble a gentle upward slope from a distance.

The Austin, Texas-bred rockers have been national players since the release of their debut album, Telephono, in 1996, but only in the past decade have the mainstream kudos caught up with the band's overwhelmingly positive reviews.

"We've been lucky enough that we've sort of been playing slightly bigger shows with each record," longtime drummer Jim Eno said. "With each tour, everything is coming together a little more."

The band's current tour is the product of years of labor, from indie-rock flavor of the moment to major-label woes to a triumphant return and artistic peaks on indie label Merge Records.

The release of a seventh album, Transference, in January netted the band some of the best reviews of its existence and debuted at No. 4 in Billboard's Top 200, moving 53,000 copies the first week.

That's small potatoes for some acts, but not for Spoon. Singer-songwriter Britt Daniel's minimal, punchy songwriting is catnip for critics who love staccato guitar riffs and darkly evocative lyrics, but it's a bit harder to swallow for the public.

The band was recently ranked the top overall artist of the decade on review aggregator, but some of us are familiar with Spoon only through its songs in the movies (500) Days of Summer; I Love You, Man; and Stranger Than Fiction.

That's changing. The band sold out its first-ever headlining gig at Radio City Music Hall weeks in advance, and now it is playing two-night stints at large theaters across the country. (The band will be a headliner at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville July 9 to 11.)

"We've played big rooms like this before, opening for people and also by ourselves, but this just seems like a natural, gradual progression for me," Eno said. "I also really like these first tours on the record just because you spend so much time in the studio, and it's really good to see how this stuff comes across live."

Spoon has never had trouble there. From the early days, when Daniel used a heavily distorted acoustic guitar, to the more honed, rhythmically driven material of the present, the band always has presented a tightly unified front.

If anything, Spoon's latest album is closer to the sound of the live sets than previous work. With a blend of intuitive polish and mid-fi production, the tracks Written in Reverse and Trouble Comes Running feel loose but confident, swaggering but clear-eyed.

"I've always felt like if a demo is strong and it sounds good, then you should keep it. It's so hard to re-create the spontaneity of that," Eno said. "And when you go into the studio and keep trying to do it, you can sort of push the life out of a song.

"Trouble Comes Running is a good example. That take on the record was the second or third time (bassist) Rob Pope and I had played the song, and to me it totally sounds like that. The rhythm section was recorded on a four-track, and I can hear that it's about to go off into chaos at any point."

The tension in Spoon's music between coherence and confusion, poetry and brutality, is key to the band's slow-burn success and a heartening sign that its brand of rock will survive into the foreseeable future.

"I was surprisingly not nervous playing Radio City," Eno said when asked about the experience. "I was thinking I'd be a lot more nervous, but I wasn't really at all. Maybe I'm just getting used to this?"