The Austin, Texas, band Spoon reached the apex of their studio mastery, I think, on “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case,” a song from their 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. While the whole album was a brilliant exercise in deconstructionist pop—I picked it as the best album of that year, and mine was not a minority opinion—on this track they seemed to simply be walking down the mixing board, turning channels on and off as they went. Here’s a song that could have been positively lush, broken up into little bits and scattered out across the floor. This is not how “normal” bands make records. But it’s the Spoon way: They keep you guessing, and that’s what keeps you listening.
So it’s no surprise that, on their seventh album, Britt Daniel and his bandmates have again found a way to preserve the minimalism at the core of their sound while adding enough layers to warrant repeated exploration. Some will say Transference is more stripped-down than Ga Ga and they’d be half-right; after “The Underdog,” bigger simply wasn’t an option. But the perception of simplicity is just more studio sleight-of-hand. The fact is that the songs, rather than the production, are the stars of the show—a mean feat from a band that seemingly attempt to sabotage their best tracks.
Hard, processed drums and fluid bass grooves abound, recalling the vintage recordings of XTC or solo Peter Gabriel, while synths and guitars provide color—though rarely at the same time. Daniel is at his best vocally, his ever-more-soulful falsetto selling lyrics that sometimes seem to get away from him. (Did he forget to write part of the second verse to “I Saw the Light”?) As for the studio goofery, it’s confined mostly to moments of odd permanence: the abrupt fade of “Got Nuffin”; the mid-syllable hard stop of “Mystery Zone”; pools of vocal echo that drown out the rest of the band. Nothing revelatory, but enough to keep you guessing. (As in, “How did they decide on that?”)
On Transference, Spoon continue the trend of besting themselves with each successive release, having reached a level of self-assurance that comes with being indie-rock’s most revered band for close to a decade.
That waterskiing accident might be the best thing that ever happened to Charlotte Gainsbourg. The 2007 brain aneurysm that nearly killed the actress-singer is now reaping some daring artistic fruit: first, via her graphic screen turn in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, and now with IRM, her second solo album. The title, French for MRI, sets the tone for much of the lyrical content, which finds the singer obsessed with her own mortality. It’s often intense, though to call it personal is a bit misleading: The entire album, lyrics included, was co-written, produced and mixed by recording artist Beck, whose presence is constantly palpable. Beck’s voice comes to the fore on the duet “Heaven Can Wait,” but it’s his production that makes the album tick. The best parts of IRM play like a spiritual relative of 2002’s Sea Change, nestling Gainsbourg’s inflection-free vocals in soft beds of acoustic guitars and ethereal electronica, as on the delicate and dark “In the End.” The beat-driven material is more uneven, though sometimes that’s the point—for instance, the sideways-sounding rhythm track and drone bass of the title track, which draw a fitting counterpart to a lyric about “following the X-ray eye.”
Speaking of being obsessed with mortality, the perennially morbid Mark Oliver Everett (aka E) has made an enterprise out of it. Dude will sad you under the table. And End Times, his eighth album as Eels, is his Nebraska: songs about hard times captured in stark simplicity on a 4-track recorder. Except this is a divorce record, which means that unlike on past releases like his 1998 masterwork Electro-Shock Blues or 2005’s tour de force Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Everett’s dealing exclusively with matters of the heart. This unexpectedly brings a hint of optimism to the proceedings—when he sings “I’m not yet resigned to fate/And I’m not gonna be ruled by hate” on “The Beginning,” you almost believe him. The overall sound of End Times is appropriately dark, but with a tone of reflection rather than a full-on wallow. Chalk that up to Everett’s ability to remain keenly self-aware even at such emotional depths. “I need a mother,” he sings. Then: “It’s really nothing new.”
Scratch My Back
When it was announced that Peter Gabriel was putting an original project on the back burner in favor of knocking out a covers album, the resounding response was “WTF?” Bite your tongues: Scratch My Back is a detour, surely, but one that is well worth your time (and Gabriel’s). Framed as part of a two-album project, in which all of the artists covered will later return the favor (We’ll Scratch Yours, presumably), the Bob Ezrin-produced album features Gabriel’s still-strong vocals backed by just orchestra, piano and voice. That makes for a sometimes sleepy, but often very engaging set. The arrangements are gorgeous, both when reverent (Bowie’s “Heroes,” Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”) and unrecognizable (Radiohead’s “Street Spirit”). Plenty of high marks here, including Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” rendered as a ballad, and Regina Spektor’s “Apres Moi” rendered, simply, listenab
A covers record of a different stripe, Turn Ons is the debut record from the HotRats, aka Supergrass members Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey. The duo hooked up with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to cut a bunch of their favorite songs and, not shockingly, it’s awesome. Coombes and Goffey cut into Costello’s “Pump It Up” and the Cure’s “Love Cats” with the selfless abandon of a couple schoolkids. There’s little in the way of reinvention here—the arrangements are primarily kept to guitar and drums—but there’s no point in doing “Queen Bitch” unless you’re gonna nail it, which they do. To that end, this might be the best Supergrass-related record since I Should Coco. Still, the ’Rats offer up some surprises, including a sweetly stripped take on Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” and a version of “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” that sounds pretty much like a Supergrass song.