Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 19 (Spoon – Stars)

with 4 comments

The gap between listening progress and blog progress is pretty impressive at this point. I’m well into W at this point (and I’ve been padding my listening with other stuff, so as not to get too far ahead), but here we are about halfway through S. Anyway…

Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Starting with the excellent 2002 LP, Kill the Moonlight, each Spoon release has become an exercise in minimalism. While that album may still hold the title as the band’s most stripped down, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga takes the simplicity developed on that album and its slightly less successful follow-up, Gimme Fiction, and smooths it out into the band’s most immediate, enjoyably pop-oriented project yet.

The trick seems to be in maintaining that base of keys, simple guitar, bass, and drum parts on most songs, but, on strategically-placed songs, adding just one thing. For instance, that one thing on “The Ghost of You Lingers” is a layer of backup vocals drenched in reverb. The one thing on “Don’t You Evah” is a persistent shaker that brings out the r&b groove. But, best of all, that one thing is a horn section on “The Underdog” and “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” two songs so utterly marvelous that they not only deserve to be co-opted by the corporate machines that brought us Feist via iPod ads and Peter, Bjorn, and John via countless bad TV show, but could even sustain the resulting overplay. The songs that stick more closely to Spoon’s established formula are terrific here, too – it’s an almost across-the-board improvement over Gimme Fiction (still a reasonably decent album). But, really, those two with the horns are the ones you absolutely need to hear.

Bruce Springsteen – Magic

The more I listen to Magic, the more it becomes apparent that this is a Springsteen comeback album for Springsteen fans. To be more specific, while I find it hard to believe that a Springsteen fan couldn’t at least enjoy this album (to get it out of the way, I’m a huge fan of his work in general, and I think this is the best studio album he’s released since Nebraska), I’m not sure it could ever be quite as meaningful for someone who just happened to pick this up.

There’s a lot of historical subtext running under Magic, and it’s apparent right from the start, with “Radio Nowhere”‘s central question “Is there anybody alive out there?”, a recurring phrase in Springsteen’s live shows, and the same song’s preoccupation with salvation through the radio, previously addressed in “Open All Night” and “Living on the Edge of the World” (and probably a few others).

But Magic‘s reverence for ghosts of Springsteens past goes deeper than mere lyrical nods. “I’ll Work for Your Love”‘s tightly-packed syllables of love, lust, and religious iconography remind you why this guy was once pegged as a “new Dylan,” and the vocals on “Your Own Worst Enemy” and “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” are smooth and deep in a way that we haven’t heard since the early 80s when the rasp and twang took over. Springsteen has called this his Beach Boys album, and, while those two songs are really the only two that hold up in that regard (though I’ve also heard perfectly legitimate Magnetic Fields comparisons made for “Girls…”), there’s a summery sprightliness that’s been missing in his work since Born to Run that runs through the best parts of Magic. Even the songs like “Long Walk Home,” “You’ll Be Coming Down” and “Devil’s Arcade” that don’t hearken back to Springsteen’s glory d… ahem… early work, spark like nothing he’s written for years. It’s as if it took the malaise of post-9/11 America (and two albums that explored it) to get him past the gritted teeth, super-serious vibe he’s carried since Tunnel of Love (in the studio, at least – he’s stayed lively as ever in concert).

Since the release of the loose, vibrant Seeger Sessions album, I’ve been hoping Springsteen would keep the spirit intact on his next official release. While this may not have that looseness (and certainly not the looseness of The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle, but that’s too much to hope for at this point), the spirit’s there in a big way.

St. Vincent – Marry Me

I saw St. Vincent open for the National earlier this year and was charmed by Annie Clarke, her strange songs, and her loop-heavy, self-sufficient way of getting them across (although less charming was an overly prominent lighting effect in her setup). I’d heard Marry Me prior to the show and thought it showed potential, but came off a little too mannered and twee, despite the big, ornate sound. After seeing her live, the album’s even more of a mystery to me. The songs rock onstage – Clarke can clearly play some guitar, and she has an ear for applying unorthodox, fuzzed-out effects to fill out the sound where the triggered bits don’t cut it. You can get a sense of this from a few tracks on Marry Me, like “Your Lips Are Red,” but it’s a huge step down from the live experience. Hopefully, her next album will get that across better.

Stars – In Our Bedroom After the War

The muted reaction to In Our Bedroom After the War wouldn’t seem so strange to me if it didn’t come on the heels of the enthusiasm that greeted Stars’ last album, Set Yourself on Fire. It’s not so much the idea that either album is particularly great or particularly awful that boggles me, but that they’re so similar in scope and execution, yet regarded so differently. Sure, Set Yourself on Fire has the advantage of leading with one of the all-time classic duets about a one-night-stand, “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” but a lot of fans of that album must rank it strictly in terms of hits and not misses, because there’s some pretty forgettable stuff on there (who ever brings up “He Lied About Death” or “The First Five Times”?).

The same mix is at play on In Our Bedroom After the War, with the anthemic “Take Me to the Riot,” the blue-eyed soul of “My Favourite Book,” and the Bee Gees strut of “The Ghost of Genova Heights” doing some of the heavy lifting to make up for the beer-commercial awkwardness of “The Night Starts Here” (seriously, this begs to be in a commercial the same way that Steve Winwood’s 80s output does) and the sorta-works, sorta-doesn’t spoken word experiment “Personal.” Tolerances may also vary on the more melodramatic stuff – the title track, “Barricade,” and “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending” are all swimming in an over-the-top Broadway musical-level sincerity, but I kind of like that. Ultimately, Bedroom doesn’t always aim as high as Set Yourself on Fire, but I find that it actually hits its targets more often and more successfully.

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Written by Dave

January 17, 2008 at 8:47 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Why hasn’t Spoon exploded yet? They’ve got the singles. I see ’em play sets on talk shows all the time. Everybody and their grandmother has heard “The Way We Get By.” They’ve always been a favorite band, but seriously, what the hell?!

    Great write-ups for all of these by the way, ‘specially for the Boss’ Magic.

    Andrew Eaton

    January 18, 2008 at 6:56 pm

  2. Thanks!

    I think “The Way We Get By” gets overlooked, because it tends to be used in movie commercials. For some reason, people pay attention to songs when they’re advertising products or in TV shows, but not when they’re chopped up for movie trailers.

    Maybe Spoon is opposed to jumping on the corporate bandwagon that the Shins, Feist, etc. have, but I’d think a commercial scored to “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” or “The Underdog” would make Spoon a lot of new fans.

    Dave

    January 19, 2008 at 8:02 am

  3. I’ve tried getting into Magic. Lord knows I have. I love Bruce. But I can’t. I don’t know if it’s the songs or the production or what, but it’s just not a very enjoyable experience for me. It took me a bit to come around on The Rising, so it’s possible the same thing will happen here, but with The Rising I at least liked it a little bit to begin with.

    Patrick Ripoll

    January 19, 2008 at 11:44 am

  4. I fear the opposite happening, since I liked The Rising at first, but it’s lost much of its appeal over time. What sounded like genuine post-9/11 melancholy and celebration in the face of grief now comes off as a little simplistic, melodramatic, and forced (especially the optimistic ones). Magic is more easy-going, even when it comes to the serious stuff.

    I’m hoping that impression will stick. I’ve certainly listened to Magic this year than I did to the Rising in the year it came out (or possibly since I’ve owned it, period).

    Dave

    January 21, 2008 at 10:33 am


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