Spoon – Hot Thoughts

Spoon are an Austin, TX based indie rock band that’s been pumping out LPs at a consistent clip since 1996.  Hot Thoughts is their 9th album, the follow up to 2014’s They Want My Soul, an album I thought was pretty mediocre but somehow still netted them some critical acclaim.  Still, the band has shown considerable consistency across their releases, and opinion is split on which from their great three album run – 2002’s Kill the Moonlight, 2005’s Gimme Fiction and 2007’s Gagagagaga is their definitive statement (my vote would undoubtedly be for Kill the Moonlight).  While the group is far from Radiohead-like when it comes to developing a new sound or sonic identity, their familiar palate of tough, drum-led rock songs, often featuring pounding, rhythmic piano and Britt Daniels’ signature raspy, too school for cool vocal delivery has served them well and produced myriad catchy, poppy rock songs.

All that said, I think Hot Thoughts is actually a great late-career album and a return to form.  It doesn’t reach the heights of the band’s creativity at their peak, but it’s consistent, interesting, well-sequenced, very well-produced, cohesive and has great sequencing.  The lyrics, as is often the case with Spoon, more often shoot for slick, cool-sounding turns of phrase than profundity or subtlety, but here they’re are never really weak, cringe-worthy or awkward.

You can split the record’s songs into two camps – the ‘classic’ Spoon rock songs, and the darker, more atmospheric and experimental tracks.  The record does a great job of shifting back and forth between these modes, and letting their elements bleed into each other.  Take leadoff “Hot Thoughts”, delivered entirely in falsetto (not uncommon for Daniels), driven by funky guitar rhythms overtop of a minor synth chord, and coining a catchy phrase to discuss courtship / romance.  It’s followed by the record’s best track, the eerie, progressive and building “WhisperI’lllistentohearit”.  The song is the very definition of tense, riding crackling fuzz and synthesizers to a fantastic payoff when the song shifts gears into a driving rock track that trades in anticipation for reckless energy, where Daniels lets out a wail reminiscent of Nebraska-era Springsteen over a riveting, jagged guitar solo.

“Do I Have to Talk You Into It?” and “First Caress” are back to girls, jaunty, plodding pianos and bar-room rock choruses, the latter featuring some nice female harmonies and a very dancey, feel-good rhythm.  These songs also develop one of the signature sounds of the record – shifting, twangy guitar chords that alternate rhythmically and across both channels.  But the record’s A-Side all feels like a build toward the fifth-sequenced “Pink Up”, a very slowly developing, six-minute, largely electronic track, consisting in part of vibraphones, tambourines, wood blocks and reversed vocals.  Daniels’ single verse is delivered almost as a chant and features the album’s most interesting lyrics – “Break off from everyday / Spend a week in the moment / Take the train to Marrakesh”.  The meaning is oblique and veiled, but haunting ambiance is thoroughly delivered as the song builds further with additional drumming and ghostly falsetto harmonies.

The second half of the record kicks off with the obvious single candidate, the catchy, smoldering “Can I Sit Next To You”.  The track is cut from the same cloth as the band’s biggest hit, “I Turn My Camera On“, is prominently set in Memphis, TN and features what I think is the record’s best vocal performance – I love the passionate delivery of “Under Tennessee skies!  Down on South Front Street!”.  “I Ain’t the One” and “Tear It Down” are fine but the production and development fail to excite relative to the A side’s denser arrangements.  The former is a little too minimalist and underwritten, while the latter is sure to raise politically minded eyebrows with its chorus of “Let them build a wall around us / I don’t care I’m gonna tear it down” (though I’m inclined to believe Daniels’ liked the phrase regardless of its extraneous connotations, a la the title track).  The penultimate “Shotgun”, though, is great.  The guitars are tight and edgy, and the story in the lyrics, which seems to address another musician Daniels has fallen out with, are both biting and idiosyncratic (“Back when we couldn’t afford the Continental / You and me dreaming ’bout full medical and dental”).

The record ends with one of the most experimental and avant-garde tracks Spoon has ever recorded, an ambient, psychedelic, instrumental saxophone piece titled “Us” that reprises some melodies from “Pink Up”.  I think the track works, and I love that both sides of the album mirror each other in energy and structure, with both ending in atmospheric, electronic tracks.  I think there’s enough tightly written rock songs for the band to afford themselves the luxury of trying something different, and the variety and color delivered those risks pays off.

Like most Spoon releases, my biggest issue with the record is emotionally and lyrically, where I think the band still falls well short of acts that both rock and cry, but from a purely musical point of view, the album is very solid, has some great tracks that are right up there with some of Spoon’s best, and feels cohesive from a sonic perspective.  The band didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel here, but they still came out and delivered 10 good tracks, a few of which could crack any fan’s top five.  I’m pleasantly surprised by this album and will likely be coming back to both its better moments and the entire project as a whole.

Score: 9 / 13

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