Monday, March 27, 2017

album review: 'hot thoughts' by spoon

So here's the frustrating thing about some acts, and I'm talking about a rare few indeed. The groups that right from the start are so consistently strong, so focused, so uniformly consistent with quality... that for some inexplicable reason they fall out of the critical conversation. And while I'll place a considerable amount of blame on fans and critics taking certain bands for granted, on some level I get it - after all, people often seem to remember the tremendous standouts and are more willing to forgive the missteps, they don't really value consistent greatness in the same way. And in a sad bit of irony, a lot of these consistent albums are only given greater significance beyond the devoted cult fanbase - because you can guarantee acts like this have a cult following more than most - when the band slips up, or changes sound dramatically and splits the fanbase, or breaks up entirely.

And I think you can make the argument that Spoon fits in this category. A quick sidebar: I've long accumulated enough music that I could fill up my iPod twice over, so I've made an effort to only include great albums or better... and with the exception of Transference, I've got every Spoon album on there! And that's telling: for over a decade since the late 90s, Spoon has cranked out album after album of quality... but I can definitely see a casual observer not being able to tell the difference from record to record. So at some level I knew it was only a matter of time before Spoon decided to switch things up - and on some level, if you go back through 2014's They Want My Soul, you could see this coming. Part of this probably could be linked back to producer Dave Fridmann coming on board and bringing his characteristic heavier, blockier sound, but probably even more linked to the quiet departure of longtime member Eric Harvey, who had been with the band since Kill The Moonlight. In other words, I wasn't entirely surprised to hear they had shifted their sound in a more indie pop direction, pulling in more guest vocalists in order to pump up their sound and add a little more diverse instrumentation, this could turn out to be something interesting - so did Hot Thoughts stick the landing?

Honestly, this was a review I did feel I had to sit on for a bit, because I had seen a bit of modest backlash to this release and I wanted to come down firmly on whether I thought it was justified or not. And honestly... while I do think that Hot Thoughts isn't quite as immediately punchy as They Want My Soul and that the flaws that are here are more evident, I ultimately would argue that you can chalk this as another win for Spoon, because I think this is a great release. I wouldn't quite place it on par with their best, but I do like what this album represents, the band taking their tight grooves and sharp melodies into intriguing new spaces and directions that have a distinctive tone and sound.

And this is the sort of experimentation I really do love: maintaining the core of their composition and style and expanding it - there's artifice and control here, sure, but it's in favor of preserving what works while going into weirder territory. And while Spoon has targeted new wave or retro disco grooves in the past - I went back through their entire discography for kicks before this review, the template was well-established as early as Girls Can Tell - Hot Thoughts picks up a significantly fuller atmosphere and presence within their mix, for which you can probably thank producer Dave Fridmann. I'll be blunt, I've found Fridmann to be a profoundly frustrating producer, but what I think both Spoon and Baroness before them understood is how best to utilize his psychedelic touch - expand mix depth, allow enough of the blocky, fuzzier textures to augment the grooves, and don't let everything get swamped out in its own compressed, overmixed murk. And for the most part Spoon succeeds remarkably here. You might think a song like the title track might stew in darker, stiffer textures, but the chunky funk of the guitar line and melody shows the band wrenching things back into their lane. It becomes more pronounced on 'Whisperi'lllistentohearit' with its swirling, jittery tones, great crescendo, and solo that plays off the sharper tambourine and cymbal, or the thicker walls of synth and strings on 'Can I Sit Next To You' or the fragmented fuzzy simmer of 'I Ain't The One' or the rough-edged gallop of 'Shotgun' that reminds me in a bizarre way of 'I Was Made For Lovin' You' by KISS! On the flipside, though, I do see where some would consider the more keyboard-driven tracks like 'Do I Have To Talk You Into It' to be a little too stiff and garish in all of its layers to really work, or the more structured new wave of 'First Caress', even though I do dig the piano cascades - but again, i think both songs wouldn't really work for me even if Fridmann's wasn't producing, I'm not really wild about the compositions as a whole. And hell, I'd argue his production improves the lingering atmosphere of 'Pink Up' with its reversed vocal samples and darbuka translating into strings and pianos, which is later brought back in reprise on 'Us' to end the record with added sax. And don't get me wrong, the intermingled sax lines sound great, but I do think it's a bit odd to end on a lingering instrumental, especially when a fair few of these songs feel a bit chopped short.

But that is nitpicking, and when you factor in how tight the compositions are, along with Britt Daniel's uncanny knack for great vocal arrangements - really loved how the multi-tracking was layered on 'I Ain't The One - you get some sharp psychedelic and indie rock on an instrumental level. But what is he aiming to say with all of this? Well on the surface from the opening track, it seems to play into hookup territory - a little more base and lustful, borderline predatory early on, which might seem out of character for Spoon... except for a key factor. See, for as much as Spoon steps into these dark, hazy grooves that owe more than a little to Prince, they're also a profoundly self-aware band, and the fact that they structure this record into two distinct halves bookended by the hazy instrumental implies a parallel connection. The lust of the title track is reflected with painful, awkward self-awareness on 'Can I Sit Next To You', a contrast on how sensuality translates from thought to the outside world to be observed by everyone. 'Whisperi'lllistentohearit' is a similar case, except it's met with a much more frank, mature, and self-aware ending on 'I Ain't The One', which easily can be interpreted as the response. The sexual frustration of 'Do I Have To Talk You Into It' where the girl is plainly not into it is reflected in an oddly better light of 'Tear It Down', where earnest love to form a connection seems almost futile in the face of a blackened sky and sound effects that imply some sort of mutually assured destruction. And then there's 'First Caress', where it might seem like our frontman is being obnoxious and not hearing his ex plainly show her disinterest - mirrored in the music where you can barely hear guest vocalist Sharon Van Etten, an artistic choice of which I've got mixed feelings - but contrast that with 'Shotgun', where it shows how such overblown ego and machismo can be so fragile when seriously challenged, and how such situations escalate quickly. And yet what's very telling is that on the atmospheric bookend 'Pink Up' we get lines like 'Everything you think we are we are' and 'We got our own ideas', which doesn't just show the continuous breakdown of communication that runs through the album but also how both sides do indeed reflect one side of the truth - something that the melancholic sax tones of 'Us' don't need words to truthfully express.

And yeah, it's a neat, smartly composed, self-contained trick - that still can feel abruptly choppy in spots and deserving of more time, and yet oddly flabby in others. And yet the more listens I gave it the more I really came to like Hot Thoughts. I'm not going to say it's as refined or sharp as They Want My Soul or some of Spoon's other great releases, but it is a damn good listen that proves this indie rock band is more than capable of holding their own with another extremely solid release. For me, it's an easy 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially for Spoon fans who are curious to see where this new sound and tone will push them. They're an easy indie rock band to love, and if you're a fan of groove-heavy and melodic music with a real brain and nuance, you'll dig this - check it out.

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