Rhythm and Bruises

Girls Can Tell that Spoon's Britt Daniel is an unlikely soul man

Britt Daniel is stalling for time. He won't come right out and say it, but yeah, that's what he's doing at the moment. A few minutes ago, Daniel was paying his bills, signing checks, sealing envelopes, and now he's in the middle of giving an interview. Or taking it, actually: Instead of answering questions, he's asking them.

So, instead of talking about Girls Can Tell, the new album by Daniel's Austin-based band Spoon, we're arguing the various merits and demerits of The Gift, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Snatch, though Daniel doesn't have much to add other than the occasional, "Yeah, I wanna see that." We're not discussing why each of Spoon's three albums has been released on a different label. Or why the band has gone through bass players like guitar strings. Or why some people think Britt Daniel is both a talented songwriter and a complete asshole. (For the record, he seems nice enough.) No, we're trying to figure out why someone would go see three movies in a weekend if it weren't part of his job. Neither of us is coming up with any satisfactory answers.

All the while, Daniel is not doing a good job of holding up his end of the conversation, or covering up that fact. He's still signing checks and sealing envelopes, judging by the constant shuffling of papers and distracted sentences. He's like a 16-year-old kid forced into a chat with his grandfather, only able to muster a few grunted uh-huhs and yeahs until he's finished, finally let off the hook. There are two ways you can take Daniel's behavior, and neither of them really matters. Fact is, it's surprising that Daniel is willing to play the game at all anymore. Then again, maybe he actually believes the third time is the charm.

No, you da man: Spoon points the way to its best album, the newly released Girls Can Tell.
No, you da man: Spoon points the way to its best album, the newly released Girls Can Tell.

See, Daniel was supposed to be a star by now, or at the very least, big enough to guest host his own hour on MTV2 with Jancee Dunn. It should've happened in 1996 when Matador Records released Telephono, an album that would have made him a millionaire if, a) good reviews were legal currency, or b) being in a Pixies cover band paid well. And 1998's A Series of Sneaks was even more critically acclaimed, which made Elektra Records (Spoon's label at the time) so happy it decided to shit-can the group less than four months after the album's release. Elektra's love-'em-and-leave-'em handling of Spoon led to 1999's "The Agony of Lafitte"/"Lafitte Don't Fail Me Now" single, a two-song letter bomb aimed at former A&R rep Ron Lafitte and Elektra president Sylvia Rhone. ("Are you honest with anyone?" Daniel asks Lafitte point-blank on "Lafitte Don't Fail Me Now.") If Daniel can't be bothered to play the good soldier this time around, you can hardly blame him.

That's not the case, however; now that the last envelope is stamped, he's ready to talk. He's willing to talk mainly because with Girls Can Tell, Spoon has recorded the best album of its seven-year life span. And Daniel knows it.

"I don't know what happened, but, I mean, in the months after we were done touring for A Series of Sneaks, I just started coming up with these songs that were . . ." He trails off. "I didn't really know if the band was going to go on, and I was more like, writing songs -- this sounds silly -- I was writing them for me," Daniel continues, chuckling softly. "I realize the air that that puts on by me saying that, but you know, I didn't know if those songs were going to come out at all. I didn't know if I was going to use them in Spoon or a different band or whatever. And for whatever reason, I started coming up with stuff that is clearly way better than anything I've ever written before."

It doesn't take long to confirm Daniel's critique of the songs on Girls Can Tell. The album-opening "Everything Hits at Once" is pretty much a perfect soul song -- beautiful and sad as a Hollywood funeral -- Daniel's voice dripping with pure ain't-too-proud-to-beg desperation: "Everything hits at once," he moans and groans. "What we needs is just what we wants." Draped in mellotron (courtesy of . . . and you will know us by the trail of dead's Conrad Keely) and vibes, the song is the most embellished track on the album, yet it sounds as though nothing exists except for Daniel, his guitar and a ton of hurt feelings; everything else fades into the scenery. Quiet and intense as a pot of boiling water, "Everything Hits at Once" nails the vibe of classic Stax/Volt sides, if not the sound exactly.

"That's a cool thing," Daniel says, a bit surprised by the comparison. "I'm glad that it gives off that impression. Obviously, we're not soul players. It'd be cool to put that feeling across. I love the Supremes. I love all that Motown stuff. And we wanted this to sound, in some places, like sort of a '60s record."

Girls Can Tell doesn't really sound like a '60s record, but it definitely feels like one, with songs that capture the possibilities of the era rather than the guitar tone or drum sound. There is nothing here that smacks of tribute, nothing you can put your finger on, at any rate. On the other hand, there is plenty of influence at work, and that's not a bad thing in Daniel's case. He's a bit like Elvis Costello, taking all the albums he grew up listening to and playing them back in his own style. Daniel's even got the same knife wounds from life and love that fueled so much of Costello's early material. "The end will come slow," Daniel sings on "Believing Is Art." "And love breaks your heart."

There are little bits of Daniel's record collection scattered all over Girls Can Tell. There's the etiquette lesson taught by Led Zeppelin on "The Fitted Shirt": "I long for the days they used to say ma'am and yes sir," Daniel admits, as "When the Levee Breaks" plays in the background. There"s spare groove that urges on "Take the Fifth," as Daniel pounds the pulpit like a thousand other soul-shouters before him. There's the awkward confidence Daniel sings with on almost every track, the kind of cocky shyness Jonathan Richman patented with the Modern Lovers almost three decades ago. But these are all just pieces -- glimpses, really -- of Daniel's influences. It all ends up sounding like Spoon. Of course, that doesn't mean what it used to.

"I mean" -- long pause -- "I don't think I was intentionally saying, 'Well, I wanna do something different,'" Daniel says. "But I knew that the songs I had written were different. And I wanted to go for a sound that had more space. Whenever you play distorted rhythm guitar, like chorded guitar, it just fills in a lot of space. I didn't wanna do that this time. There's lots of space, lots of whole notes being held out and stuff. So, yeah, I knew that I wanted it to be warmer. I wanted, on certain songs, for you to be able to hear the room that we were playing in, to hear that space, for us to add a lot of reverb and stuff -- the exact opposite of A Series of Sneaks, which was completely dry. We were afraid of reverb at that time, and I think it worked well for that record. But, uh, now we're more into it."

Before Girls Can Tell was finished, Daniel wasn't sure if there was going to be a we anymore, or anything left to get into. After A Series of Sneaks was abandoned by Elektra (Vapor Records later reissued the disc), Daniel didn't know if Spoon would live to put out another album. Everyone in the group was understandably discouraged by Elektra's rough treatment, and no one wanted to endure the confusion and compromises that come along with recording contracts. Somehow, they remained hopeful about it all. "I never was that optimistic about 'making it,'" Daniel told Magnet at the end of 1998. "But I still love music as much now as ever."

With that in mind, the band -- Daniel, longtime drummer Jim Eno and since-departed bassist Josh Zarbo -- started recording Girls Can Tell in May 1999. They laid down rough versions of eight of the disc's 11 songs during the next couple of months, until Daniel moved to New York, a summer vacation that spilled over into the fall.

"I was just subletting my place here," Daniel says. "A lot of people from Austin have moved up there. A lot of my friends had moved there. It's my favorite city. I'd always wanted to live there. I wanted to get out of Texas in the summer. Just sorta seemed natural."

When Daniel finally came back, work on the record recommenced, as the group added parts to some of the early eight-track recordings and completely redid others. An album was starting to emerge, but the band was still without a label to put it out. Enter Merge Records, the label owned and operated by Superchunk's Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance.

"Our booking agent is pretty close with them; he books Superchunk, and he books a bunch of bands on Merge," Daniel explains. "I have a lot of respect for them as people and the bands they've worked with, so it sounded like a good idea. I mean, at that point, nobody else wanted to do anything with us."

The deal with Merge resulted in last year's Loveways EP (which features the excellent "I Didn't Come Here to Die" and four other songs), as well as the recent release of Girls Can Tell. For the moment, Spoon's future seems fairly secure, at least in their terms. Still, Daniel's extended stay in New York taught him that his own future doesn't depend on Spoon. For most of his career, a lot of people thought Britt Daniel was Spoon and vice-versa. He knows that isn't true. Not anymore.

"I didn't wanna stop doing shows [when I was in New York]," Daniel begins. "Obviously, the band wasn't up there, so I worked up a decent solo show. It's nice, 'cause you don't have to practice with anybody else, you don't have to ask anybody else. You know, when the band plays, the money goes to the band fund, but when I play solo, then, you know, I get a few bucks. That's nice. It's either really good or really bad. I find it a little bit more difficult to put on a really good show solo. Because it's just so much less instrumentation, it's less noisy -- it's all up to me, you know?"

Don't go looking for Daniel's solo album just yet, though. And it's not because he's stalling for time.

"I would do that, but I don't have any plans to do that right now. I've got a lot of stuff recorded that I've done solo. We'll just see how things go with Spoon in the next few months. I mean, I'm very, very proud of this record -- way more than I ever have been about a record -- so I'm very excited about being in this band right now."

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