Not Being Cool Is No Reason to Give Up
by Molly Lambert
Man, so the new Spoon and Wilco albums are really weak. I don’t mean weak like bad but more kinda just like soft. They’re both a mix of predictable formulas with a few half-assed experimental gestures thrown in to show they’re not resting completely on their laurels, which they are.
When a band’s success is built on a particular “sound,” there are a few ways it can go. Either you can keep wearing down the wheels of steel until you’re a million years old (the Stones), or you can die early and get embalmed in critical praise (Elliott Smith). Sometimes everybody moves on and you try to join them and embarrass yourself (see: The Eighties), sometimes if you hang on long enough your sound comes back into fashion (ELO, Hall and Oates). Sometimes you don’t really need to change the sound, and people will keep deeming you over until you’re old enough to be legendary, while you just keep writing new chapters in the Nibelaungenlied that is your life’s work. (Springsteen, Dylan).
I don’t blame Spoon (here’s them by live by Culture Bully) or Wilco for the routes they’ve opted to take at this point. You could do worse than to be a workmanlike band churning out solid classic rock jams while taking it on the road and trying to have a family life. Spoon has a little less to lose by breaking their formula, as their “critical breakthrough” album, Girls Can Tell, wasn’t the NPR story of the 9/11 millennium like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot pop-flyed into being.
If Wilco had turned it a couple of degrees to the left, this album could have been the sonic equivalent of a warm but unattractive sweater, perfect for the cold Chicago winters. A few degrees to the right, and it might have been a cocoa-buttered and coked-up yacht-rock auditory-odyssey. Instead it’s in a weird kind of a half-baked territory between “completely genuine” and “totally fucking with you.” Like if The Band formed a supergroup with Ween.
The musicianship is all great, but there’s just a weird “we didn’t work that hard on these songs” vibe to everything. It sounds like Tweedy is off the booze and maybe having a little bit of a stable period, which might account for the lack of focus on the songcraft. If he’s happy and the music sucks, let it be. He’s bound to have a few more crises of will before he hits Rock ‘N Roll Heaven. Let him make his mid-career album that sounds like a weird jam-band jag-off of half-ideas for songs. He’s got Loose Fur for the weirdo shit. Let the Soccer Moms have this album for their Volvo’s six CD changer as they drive out to their lake house in Benton Harbor.
Spoon’s album is equally mainstream, if only because the mainstream now readily consumes dance rock like they do frozen yogurt. Spoon ventures into !!! territory at a couple points, which is fine, as !!!, (who have a super embarrassing video on MTV2 right now) were just a semi-decent rip off of The Make-Up. There’s also a half-assed Clash-raga, and an “ironic” Chicago (the band) type horn section on “The Underdog.” Much has been made of the horn section on this song, as though it shows some sort of crazy experimental bent on the part of the band. In truth, it’s arranged more tamely than any given eight bars of a Jon Brion production. If this song rocked, at all, it could sound like Thin Lizzy, whose vocals Britt Daniel is air-quoting here. As it is it sounds a lot like Joe Jackson, who might actually be a good, if hopelessly uncool, model for Spoon.
Joe Jackson wrote perfectly jagged little pop songs, Elvis Costello with the dagger turned inwards rather than out towards the world. As he progressed, he got cheesy and turned into a soft-jazz station staple. But look at Elvis Costello! For all his supposed street cred, I have nothing positive to say about his forays into the jazz world with latest wife Diana Krall.
Those albums with Burt Bacharach, on the other hand, are dope. Burt Bacharach is the ultimate cheesy giant who cannot be denied. His songs aged strangely because their songwriting was so strange to begin with. Wilco and Spoon could both do well to look him up, because first, he won’t jack you off with a song longer than three minutes, which is what both bands do on every single track here. There’s a way to make complicated songs interesting, and no reason to make songs this long that are so uncomplicated.
This is what really fucks Spoon, I think.
Their songs work best as short stories, in and out, to the point. “The Fitted Shirt,” for my money is the best song from Girls Can Tell. It works like a poem and, like the best Kinks songs, evokes an entire past era without being blunt. This album has none of those pointed details. It kind of ambles. When you play a Spoon song for too long it kind of just, goes on. The harder they vamp those riffs, the more you let them breathe, the less interested I become in listening to them. If you’re going to expand your songs, expand your song structure. Don’t just play an extra-long Spoon song. Always leave them wanting more, as they say in the theater world I originate from.
Both of these albums amble, really, and not in the gentle rambling way you might actually like. One particularly harsh review called the Wilco “Dad Rock,” an insult that totally pissed off my dad (who Tivo’d Wilco’s boring performance on Letterman) when I related it to him. Baby Boomers hate the implication that they are uncool as much as they hate the implication that they are old. This is their fault, for having demonized age in the first place. Also the reason our generation (generation Mixed Race) will be fine, having seen how The Greatest Generation quietly weathered endless catastrophes and later put up with their kids whining about everything and running off to take drugs off in the forest and are generally fairly dignified about being old.
I mean, it is Dad Rock. They’re both totally Dad Rock. But so what? Jeff Tweedy’s a dad whose kids are old enough to have their own band whose dad can get them gigs at Lollapalooza. Britt Daniel is kidding himself if he doesn’t see his own encroaching Dadhood. It’s harder to retain any vestige of your coolness, your rock-n-rollness, your immortality, when you are a dad. It gets easier again later, when you’re a Really Old Guy, but for the whole time that your kids are at the age where making fun of you is the norm, you are no longer cool. They have displaced you. You are so yesterday. See my review of yesterday’s Sopranos.
But not being cool is no reason to give up. Not being cool is the reason you should just focus on caring a lot about your family and your fans and not on the Velvet Underground bullshit that makes Williamsburg such a retarded place to have a reading. There’s another way out of uncoolness, called acceptance, which leads to amazing Dad Rock albums like Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, which Sky Blue Sky often nods at but keeps abandoning for more Steely Dan rock-nerd wankery bullshit. I love Steely Dan. Unlike Wilco on this record, they commit.
Neil Young manages to make earnestness cool, which is still the hardest task for any musician to accomplish (see: Bright Eyes). He’s just so fucking Canadian. Wilco and Spoon could both stand to be a little more Canadian in their future endeavors, is all I’m saying here.
Molly Lambert is this recording’s senior contributor. She lives in Echo Park, California.
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