Spoon—the consistently solid rock band from Austin, Texas—has released its 9th album, Hot Thoughts. Ninth album? It seems like just yesterday that Spoon busted out on the indie scene with songs like “I Turn My Camera On” and “The Underdog,” cementing the band’s status as indie pop-rock headliners. In a sense Spoon has filled the void left by bands like the Strokes and White Stripes, who both fizzled out in the late aughts. Endlessly catchy and usually accompanied with an infectious beat, Spoon’s previous albums were easy on the ears, a kind of aural dessert.
Buying a new Spoon album is a pretty easy gamble: you know going in that the songs will be reliably mid-tempo, catchy and sustaining. The band offers some of the best hooks in contemporary rock, bar none. Dependable. Steadfast. Spoon is the Toyota Camry of the indie rock world. This sounds like a potentially backhanded compliment, but I personally drive something similar so my money is already where my mouth is.
Building upon their previous standout disk—2014’s They Want My Soul—Spoon continues with ten more shiny songs with Britt Daniel’s craggy vocals leading the way, backed by Jim Eno on drums, Alex Fischel on keyboards and piano and Rob Pope on bass. However, the fifth Spooner on this particular album is power producer Dave Fridmann. Best known for his work with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, Fridmann lends Hot Thoughts a lustrous, hallucinogenic quality. These songs never jab; they glide. They ease their way into your ear holes and make a nest there.
Spoon is an exceptional singles band, though not always an album band. In Hot Thoughts Spoon is more attentive to the album-oriented concept as a whole, but it comes at the expense of grit. This is a mistake. Britt Daniel possesses one of indie rock’s great, raspy voices and what often makes Spoon so compelling is the merger of Daniels and the dancey beats the band has always offered. The first time I heard Spoon, I thought the band was British—Daniels’ voice possesses a certain cockney tang. To my ears, Spoon contains some 80’s residue from bands like the Clash (their rock-with a-beat is often reminiscent of early 80’s Clash, actually) .
On the first three tracks of Hot Thoughts—the title track, “WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” and “Do I Have to Talk You Into It”—the band continues where they left off in 2014. “Can I Sit Next to You” also adds flourishes to this recipe, especially an exotic, slow drag ribbon that snakes its way through the melody. It’s a terrific pop song. “I Ain’t the One” is, for the most part, a minimalistic splendor of a ballad—stripped down to keyboards and moving vocals.
On other tracks Spoon is less disciplined than usual. “Pink Up” sounds like background music for an indie films’ action sequence—it wends and weaves but the end result leaves me unfilled. “First Caress” apparently includes vocals by indie deity Sharon Van Etten, but her exquisite pipes are unfortunately buried beneath the layers of assembly. The last three tracks on the album are standard fare but not particularly memorable—less beguiling than the first half of the album. The final track, the sax-driven “Us,” returns, regrettably, to “Pink Up” territory.
When I listen to Spoon’s 2002 Kill the Moonlight it makes me nostalgic for this earlier incarnation of the band. Songs like “Small Stakes,” “Stay Don’t Go” and “The Way We Get By” are propulsive, simple rock numbers which never resort to smoke and mirrors. They build by accretion—good beat, good melody, good bass line. What I loved about the early to mid-Spoon albums was the relatively unvarnished, jagged edge the band offered. “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb.” “Don’t Make Me a Target.” These earlier songs are more repetitive and rudimentary in some ways, but starkness is not a four letter word.
In interviews Spoon has stated that they wanted Hot Thoughts to present a futuristic aesthetic. I get that, but I’m truly looking forward to subsequent Spoon albums when I hope they strip away some of the superfluous varnish evident here. The interwebs are full of ears postulating that this is Spoon’s experimental album. Hardly. Structurally eight of the ten tracks are pop-rock songs fully within the mainstream of Spoon’s oeuvre, just with greater sheen. Spoon seems to be trying a bit too hard in Hot Thoughts. Needlessly so, really. They sound so good just being themselves.