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Consensus Non-Consensus: Spoon’s “Transference”

In Consensus Non-Concensus, I take a look at a lesser release by a great artist, and decide if that perception is justified or if the album is worth a second look.

In his essential retrospective What Ever Happened To Alternative Nation?, Steve Hyden posits that while their sounds are completely different, Sound Garden and Spoon are in many ways the same band. Both are acts that have flirted with mainstream success without ever truly crossing over.

Sound Garden has had more quantifiable success, but that is attributable to the pre-digital business model of their era. More importantly however, they are both unbelievably consistent producers of world class rock n roll that the critical world has always taken for granted.

During their prime, Spoon and Sound Garden were releasing very good to great albums at such a regular pace, than anything less than a five star, genre smashing effort was greeted with some variation of “it’s one of my favorite album of the year so far, but not my favorite of the decade, try harder next time guys!” Nowhere was this type of reception more apparent than when Spoon released their seventh, and to date most recent album, Transference.

Spoon had a lot to live up to with Transference. Their previous effort, 2007’s all time classic Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, had pushed them back into the public eye with two minor hits in “The Underdog” and “Don’t You Evah.” Spoon needed to figure out a way to hold onto this public attention, and maybe finally break through into the mainstream once and for all. It probably came as a disappointment to some, then, when Spoon released Transference, a stripped down, bare bones album featuring almost no extra instrumentation beyond guitar, drums, bass and piano, and songs that seemed to have been written and recorded in a short, off the cuff style.

For a band that was known for being studio obsessives with a dense song writing ability, many found Transference to be dull and undercooked, the work of a band who knew they couldn’t top their last effort so they didn’t bother trying. While it’s true that Transference never reaches the heights of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (what could?), it’s an excellent record in it’s own right, and a worthy addition to the band’s stellar cannon.

The tone is set right away with “Before Destruction.” A slow, minimal song that plods along slowly behind a droning organ, Brit Daniel sings in a sad, disconnected voice about decay and death. There isn’t going to be much of the upbeat, irreverent Spoon we came to know on the last album, but a return to their more minimal sound they utilized on Kill The Moonlight.

From here the record picks up a bit. On “Is Love Forever” and “Mystery Zone,” Spoon reminds us of their studio prowess, using distorted drums, razor sharp guitar licks, and that great lost tool known in the recording community as Space. “Mystery Zone” and “Who Makes Your Money” explore the dub/reggae elements they flirted with on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which fit in perfectly with the minimal approach of this record.

Transference is deliberately more low key than previous releases, which many people interpreted as Spoon getting old, or just not trying. However, even the albums detractors will find something to love in “Trouble Comes Running.” A straight pop-rock song harkening back to their early Matador days, “Trouble” sticks to the bare bones structure of Transference and becomes one of the tightest, most frantic tracks Spoon has ever released.

On the other end of the spectrum is the following track, “Goodnight Laura.” A gorgeous lullaby, the song is just Brit and a piano. “Goodnight Laura” is honest and spontaneous in a way the band hadn’t attempted before, and speaks to how successful the looser, less rigid approach could be.

As the title of this column states, Transference isn’t Spoons best album. I would have trouble putting it above fourth in their incredible catalog and when the band finally releases it’s follow up, Transference will probably only be mentioned in passing as it’s uneven predecessor. Still, Transference is a rich and deeply rewarding listen, and while it may not be their best album, it’s not for lack of effort. Even when Spoon are actively trying to sound lazy and unfinished, there is a laser sharp focus in their effort to do so.

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