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Survivor's Tale


Spoon: Kill the Moonlight

Merge, 2002

Rating: 4.7



Posted: August 25, 2002

By Laurence Station

It's rarely a good sign for a band's long-term health when three different labels release its first three albums. Different labels create difficulty in tracking down a band's back catalog; then there's the variance in distribution deals, not to mention the delayed time-to-market, which can deter fickle fans who might otherwise have embraced the group's material. No question about it, label hopping kills most bands.

Luckily for Austin, Texas-based Spoon's ever-swelling fan base, its new release is its record-breaking second album in a row for the solid Chapel Hill indie flag-bearer Merge, after a seemingly career-torpedoing series of label switches. Even better, it shows that artistically, at least, that which hasn't killed Spoon has only made it stronger.

Kill the Moonlight (the intriguing title's the lone element lifted from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's 1909 Futurist manifesto praising the modernity of 20th-century life) finds Spoon at its most musically adventurous and lyrically precise. Where the band's 1996 debut, Telephono (Matador), played like a potent Pixies tribute, and 1998's Series of Sneaks (Elektra) saw Spoon gaining more confidence, yet veering a little too close to Pavement in its ragged guitar sound and elliptical lyrical interplay, Kill the Moonlight proves the more intriguing yin to the straight-laced yang of 2001's classic breakup pop effort, Girls Can Tell.

Life with Merge seems to suit the band well: Kill the Moonlight reveals Spoon, and especially front man/songwriter Britt Daniel, further exploring the mature voice developed on Girls Can Tell. Specifically, Moonlight finds Daniel moving beyond the familiar terrain of broken relationships into fertile new lyrical territory involving boredom, restlessness and seeking escape from the mundane world of strip malls and thankless, low-paying jobs. The opening "Small Stakes," making clever use of a Spartan arrangement involving tambourine, keyboards and a sturdy backbeat, tackles low wage imprisonment, and those who allow themselves to be trapped by it, head-on with the scathing line "Me and my friends sell ourselves short/ But feel very well/ We feel fine."

"The Way We Get By," a snappy piano-based tune with an aggressive beat, serves as an ironic call to arms for listless stopgap workers: "We believe in the sum of ourselves," Daniel proclaims, despite the dead-end reality facing the kids he's giving voice to. "Something to Look Forward To" imagines "a place where you can't get back" from, while the earnest, quiet desperation of "Paper Tiger" contains the uncomfortable promise "I will be there with you when you turn out the light."

Unlike prior releases, Kill the Moonlight doesn't depend so heavily on blistering guitar attacks to bolster its rhythm, relying instead on sparse piano, bass and drum structures to impart a sense of isolated spaciousness that ties in well with the album's alienated-from-a-society-of-overly-ambitious-professionals mood. Daniel isn't championing a slacker ethos so much as he's narrowing his focus on the marginalized and underpaid, the people who don't wear designer suits or drive sporty new showroom cars.

The lone guitar-driven rocker is a good one, though. "Jonathan Fisk," a high energy, punk-fueled ambush, pondering whatever became of a childhood bully, adds just the right amount of oomph. This saves the album from becoming an overly minimalist affair, where several of its deeper points might have been in danger of becoming buried in the deliberate mix.

Which isn't to say that the band's new musical approach is a drawback. Peak tracks "All The Pretty Girls Go To The City," with Jim Eno's dynamic drumming meshing nicely with Daniel's anxious keys, and "Stay Don't Go," which uses a looped, breathy human beatbox and backward organ to great effect, illustrate Kill the Moonlight's strongest aspect -- the band's willingness to change the rules of its standard musical format, pushing forward into exciting and potentially revelatory directions.

Where the vast majority of bands release their signature albums early in their careers and steadily lose relevance over time, Spoon has proven the exception to this rule, a group that has successfully absorbed the indie-rock influences that defined its first two releases and wholly come into its own. From Daniel's nothing-wasted songwriting approach to the band's increased experimentation with what the three-minute pop rock song can be, Spoon has clearly shed its follow-the-leader skin to create a brilliant and unique record. "Vittorio E." ends the album with the hopeful refrain "It goes on." Let's hope so.

Kill the Headlights and Put It in Neutral
For those not familiar with near-century old Futurist manifestos that, amongst a myriad of other radical and somewhat fascistic ideas, favored artificial illumination over natural light, the title of Spoon's new album might ring a bell for another reason: Steve Hanft's 1997 film of the same name, which also spawned a soundtrack featuring songs by Hanft buddy Beck, the Pussywillows, and Go to Blazes. Kill the Moonlight, the feature film, tells the story of a wannabe stock-car racer named Chance who experiences a series of misadventures while attempting to get his car fixed in time for the big race. Not sure where you can find a copy, as it does not appear to be currently available for commercial consumption.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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