Spoon Builds On Success; Oneida Breaks Out at Last

Sometime back in the late 1990’s, Britt Daniel, the leader of the Austin, Tex.–based band Spoon, figured out what he wanted to do with himself. His life’s mission, he told CMJ New Music Monthly in a 2002 interview, had become clear: “to add to the history of great rock records.” Most people would call this an audacious goal. Even more audaciously, Mr. Daniel went ahead and did it.

Actually, I don’t know for sure whether Mr. Daniel’s moment of realization occurred in the late 90’s-he didn’t specify in the interview-but that’s my guess, because that’s when his band was dropped from Elektra Records following a brief flirtation that yielded one album. Many talented musicians got booted off major labels around the same time-all casualties of the music industry’s merger mania, all dumped more or less unfairly. But in Spoon’s case, you could at least understand the company’s reasoning. Mr. Daniel’s songs, though full of potential hooks, had too often been undone by a self-conscious jaggedness, as if their composer couldn’t bear not to be difficult.

In the wake of the Elektra mishap, Spoon’s style changed drastically. Mr. Daniel (one of the band’s two full-time members, along with drummer Jim Eno) started playing keyboards, retiring the amplified, heavily distorted acoustic guitar that had previously formed the music’s backbone. And instead of sabotaging his catchy nods to 60’s British Invasion–era pop, he emphasized them. The result: three great rock records, first Girls Can Tell (2001), then Kill the Moonlight (2002), and now the just-released Gimme Fiction (Merge).

Make no mistake, Mr. Daniel hasn’t lost his will to be thorny. But he’s learned how to use the thorniness to his advantage, adding depth to the melodies rather than compromising them. For example, the frantic, dissonant guitar solo that bursts in toward the end of Gimme Fiction’s opening track, “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” is probably as close as you can get to capturing the sound of a person’s nerves fraying. And yet it’s just one component of a dark but winning would-be anthem anchored by these lines, which feel refreshingly unironic: “I got a feelin’ oh and then it got to me / It took its time a-working into my soul / I got to believe it comes from rock and roll.”

References abound, both to playing music and to listening to it. “Remember the weight of the world / It’s a sound that we used to buy / On cassette and 45,” Mr. Daniel sings on “I Summon You,” to the strains of an oddly E.L.O.-ish nylon-string guitar. The perfect power pop of “Sister Jack,” propelled by chattering tambourine, takes on extra resonance when its down-at-the-mouth narrator reveals that he once belonged to “this drop-D metal band we called Requiem” (“drop-D” being a guitar tuning much loved by hard rockers). Self-reflexive lyrics can soon grow tiresome; luckily, Mr. Daniel doesn’t overdo it.

When making great rock records, it helps to have a great rock voice, and Britt Daniel’s certainly qualifies. His idol is obviously John Lennon, and like Lennon, he sings from the nose; he sometimes sounds like he’s coming down with a cold. The hints of grit in Mr. Daniel’s throat help him bite into words, which he does to best effect on Gimme Fiction’s sparest song, a stripped-down disco number called “I Turn My Camera On.” In a raggedy falsetto, he repeats with relish, “You hit me like a tom / I don’t know where it’s from.” I don’t know, either, but it sure is good.

Happy Ending

On Saturday, May 7, the prolific Brooklyn trio Oneida celebrated the release of The Wedding (Jagjaguwar), a hotly anticipated follow-up to last year’s Secret Wars, with a 30-minute set at the Palace Tavern, a rustic Greenpoint outpost advertising a Jell-O-shot special.

Brooklyn’s indie-music scene generates a steady supply of grad-school rockers trying to make old garage-rock tropes new with their healthy (though sometimes misguided) disdain for 4/4 time. Oneida are veterans by now: A gem of a band, they’ve been working since 1997 to refine and bottle a dirty, frenetic sound. The Wedding, their seventh album in eight years, is their most polished, mature and versatile work to date.

For a time, it was hard to take Oneida seriously. (I’m still on high alert for irony, but I failed to detect any in the new album.) Each of the band members sports an absurd nickname: Fat Bobby plays the keyboards; Kid Millions is on the drums; and Hanoi Jane, a.k.a. Baby Jane-a balding man in his mid-30’s-works the bass and guitar. They’ve made their reputation channeling their playful, enigmatic selves into an equally playful and enigmatic brand of garage and psych rock-think Foghat on speed.

As recently as 2002, with the release of Each One Teach One, the band was stuck in the mire of psych rock, searching painfully for the perfect guitar riff. Looped licks droned until the songs became the aural equivalent of stereograms, those computer-generated optical illusions that require you to cross your eyes before you can see the hidden image. Listening to Oneida, one had to relax the ears, so to speak, before the perfect riff could begin to emerge. It was a frustrating exercise with little upside, and I suspect there was an element of deliberate provocation involved.

The new album transcends all the labels-garage rock, psych rock, even stoner metal-that seemed to fit Oneida more or less neatly in the past.

Violins-violins!-greet (or, better yet, summon), the listener in the opening track, “The Eiger.” Sweet yet hurried arpeggios transport us to the far-off world of a little girl who fears dying on the cold peak of the famous Swiss mountain. O.K., it’s perhaps a little bizarre, but the tune is infused with genuine longing. There’s a new depth to the lyrics on this album, with a nature motif laced throughout.

The Wedding’s apotheosis is “Spirits,” a rolling dirge with a sitar in the background. Nothing says mystical quite like a well-placed sitar.

The only time Oneida finds itself in trouble is when they drift, ever so slightly, into indie-pop terrain: “High Life,” with its peppy synth beat and quasi-falsetto vocals, marks a low point. (It almost sounds like they were thinking, ” Radio single!”) And the transition from “High Life” to “Did I Die”, a rollicking, Zeppelinesque screecher, is jarring. But I’m quibbling.

The Wedding, with its mature and concise approach to songwriting, would be a surprise if it weren’t for Secret Wars, which was released early last year. A disciplined affair, Secret Wars did much to erase the bad aftertaste of Each One Teach One, and it turns out to have been a harbinger of better things to come. With The Wedding, Oneida lives up to the album’s title: The band that was always a bridesmaid is ready to be a bride.

-Jake Brooks

Spoon Builds On Success; Oneida Breaks Out at Last