A satisfying and subtle Spoon-ful of minimalism

Posted: July 10, 2007

Britt Daniel presumably didn't spend a whole lot of time coming up with the subliterate title of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge ***½), the sixth album by his much-revered band, Spoon.

That's OK, because all the effort can be heard in the grooves, or, more accurately, in the digital files. And that doesn't mean that Ga Ga - whose nonsensical title is an onomatopoeic approximation of the gurgling keyboard rhythm that drives the second track, "The Ghost of You Lingers" - sounds obsessively fussed over, though it probably was.

That's a safe bet. Spoon is a band - longtime stars of the music scene in Austin, Texas, though Daniel now lives in Portland, Ore. - whose quintessentially American penchant for hard work and self-improvement has transformed it from alt-also-rans to well-respected indie heroes that stand their best chance of reaching a wide audience with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

Daniel, 33, is a master of minimalism who has become expert at boiling his songs down to their essential elements. There are all sorts of instruments put to productive use on the album, from electric harpsichord to Chamberlin to Japanese koto.

Horns punch up "You've Got Yr. Cherry Bomb," the song that has the best chance yet to turn Spoon into a household name and not just a household utensil. The handclappy "The Underdog" was produced by Jon Brion, the knob-twiddler for Fiona Apple and Kanye West, and both songs suggest that Daniel's been spending time digging through the Motown catalog.

But the result of the band's broadening musical palette isn't one of those Beach Boys-wannabe studio-obsessive efforts meant to impress with its carefully layered arrangements. Instead, Spoon (which consists of Daniel, drummer and longtime collaborator Jim Eno, bass player Rob Pope, and multi-instrumentalist Eric Harvey) specializes in paring away excess elements from their songs until they sound almost unfinished.

Which is what winds up making the band's music so satisfying over the long haul. Bits and pieces of Ga Ga have been circulating on the Internet for weeks, seemingly with the band's blessing. If you were obsessive enough to go looking, you could easily enough find songs like the rugged and restrained opener "Don't Make Me a Target" or the mysteriously misspelled, cryptic political critique "Rhthm & Soul" ("No common sense," Daniel sings, "not in the name of democracy").

That's a good thing. Even more than the band's previous, similarly excellent efforts - Girls Can Tell (2001), Kill the Moonlight (2002), and Gimme Fiction (2005) - Ga Ga takes its time growing on you. And it's appropriate too, for a band that took its time finding its way. Like a baseball player who doesn't find a comfort zone until getting to the big leagues, Spoon's earliest efforts, Telephono (1996) and A Series of Sneaks (1998), hardly hinted at how accomplished the band would grow at crafting formalist, Beatles-influenced indie-rock.

At first blush, there appears to not be much to songs like the elegantly subtle "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case." The song's title rhymes with "Bring a mirror to my face," before hinting at a past the singer wishes he could leave behind: "Let all my memories be gone."

Aptly, it's the song that deftly employs the aforementioned Japanese string instrument, and, typically, it doesn't articulate anything more than it needs to. The songwriter provides the framework, the listener supplies the rest.

That less-is-more aesthetic is a hallmark of everything Daniel does, including his excellent contributions of incidental music and an otherwise-unavailable Spoon song to last year's soundtrack to the Will Ferrell movie Stranger Than Fiction.

And in a culture that bombards you with stimuli, that's the satisfying thing about Daniel's unfailingly consistent songs. Excuse the expression, but they never spoon-feed you musical nourishment. Instead, they offer a tantalizing taste, and whet your appetite for more.


To hear samples of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, go to http://go.philly.com/albums


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.

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