By his own admission, sincerity is one of the harder things Spoon's Britt Daniel has ever had to do.
"The first time I sang, 'Anything You Want' [from the new album], I was very, very embarrassed," confesses the Austin quartet's frontman and principal songwriter. "The first time I sang it, [drummer] Jim [Eno] was recording me, and it was just me and Jim in the room. There was no wall. There was nowhere to hide. It was just one room where we recorded this album. It was tough."
What makes new songs like "Anything You Want," "Me and the Bean," and "10:20 AM" so unusual and even difficult for Daniel is that, well, they're love songs. Love songs are not typical indie-rock fare; irony, wit, obscurity -- these are the genre's valued writing affectations. They're also things that are conspicuously absent from the band's third LP, Girls Can Tell.
Set Girls Can Tell next to Spoon's two previous albums, A Series of Sneaks and Telephono, throw in the band's Soft Effects EP, and play the old, "Which one of these is not like the other" game, and you'd be a nuts not to pick Spoon's most recent album as the odd man out. It's not that they've cut an album's worth of Tuuvan throat singing, but something is clearly different about Girls Can Tell.
"I just started listening to records and started thinking, 'You know what? I'm never honest with anything in my lyrics,'" explains Daniel. "And I love all of these records where people speak very directly, like Bruce Springsteen, or Jonathan Richman, or Ray Davies. They're not whiny about it. They show they care and have emotions.
"When I started realizing that, I decided that we should go for that more -- songs like 'Fitted Shirt,' 'Anything You Want.' There are still some vague ones on this album, but there are some where you know what I'm talking about."
Springsteen ain't exactly the patron saint of indie rock, so it might seem like Daniel is risking a serious hit to his credibility by mentioning the Boss in such a context. But the "indie" classification itself is one that Daniel not only disagrees with, but is anxious to disavow.
"I don't like indie rock," he avers. "We're a rock band on an independent label. Everybody has their own definition of indie rock. Mine is almost completely negative.
"A lot of indie rock suffers from a lack of ambition -- being musically ambitious. I know a lot of people in indie rock bands who are great friends and great musicians, but they're always afraid to do things that are too cheesy. I just decided we don't want to play by those rules."
While recording their last, critically lauded album, A Series of Sneaks, Daniel was so intent about making it sound like a British post-punk record (at the time he was listening to Wire, Gang of Four, and Public Image Ltd.) that the singer was even scared to use reverb.
For Girls Can Tell, however, Daniel says he began thinking about the distinguishing characteristics of his favorite albums, the ones he came back to time and again. He realized they were things you could sing along with -- the Beatles, Stones, Motown -- and figured he should make something like that, something that sounded like the Sixties.
"I don't think it succeeded in all places, but in some of it," he owns up.
It's not just that Daniel wasn't afraid to be lyrically sincere this time around. Musically, he and his bandmates, most notably Eno, who's helped define Spoon's crisp sound from the beginning, had the confidence to make an album that might not be what others expected.
"I just felt like -- and I think everybody in the band felt this way -- that we know to some degree that we're really good at what we do," he says. "And we were just going to ..."
"I think you really have be confident to make a good record," says Daniel thoughtfully. "Otherwise, you're going to be covering your tracks the whole time. It gets back to that whole indie-rock thing: 'We have to make sure it's cool.' You should just be emotional. Before, we were really insecure.
"These bands like the Beatles or U2, they got to the stage where they knew that people loved them. That's when they got really fucking creative. They got so no-holds-barred because they had the confidence to go make great records. I'm not saying that we got to that point, but we got closer to that point."
Again, Girls Can Tell isn't such a radical shift that fans won't easily identify it as a Spoon album. Still, the gaunt tension that helped define Telephono and Sneaks has been wed to a more conventional approach to pop-song assembly. Thus, "Take a Walk" features an introductory riff that could've been lifted from the Monkees, while "Take the Fifth" is defined by an EIvis Costello backbeat purloined directly from Imperial Bedroom.
Daniel's prior insecurity relating to the music industry is easy to understand: three albums on three different labels. For Matador debut Telephono, reviews were mixed and Daniel's recollections of the period are not exactly positive.
"I definitely felt that we weren't doing a good thing," he reveals. "Nobody took to the album. When we toured, nobody came to see us."
Despite that, the band was signed to Elektra for A Series of Sneaks. While the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, the band's experience with the label was the antithesis. After only four months, Spoon's A&R liaison Ron Lafitte was fired. Almost immediately thereafter, the label dropped Spoon despite the fact that president Sylvia Rhone had been reassuring the band that even if they weren't selling hot out of the gate, the label would continue to work them and provide tour support. Four months. Not even half as long as an Austin summer.
"I feel like we screwed up," Daniel says today. "It was just a bad decision to make. Lafitte definitely misrepresented things, and didn't come through in any way on his promises. And he definitely fucked us over. It's bad. What happened was bad. I don't look at it as a learning experience. I look at it as unfortunate."
That was roughly August 1998. Less than a year later, by June of 1999, the basic tracks for Girls were already completed. By March of the following year, the album was done. Yet Spoon still had no label.
"After both of those times, we sent it out to a lot of people, and nobody wanted anything to do with it. And that was hard, because I thought it was really good."
He's right, it is. So, too, thought a couple of the guys in Superchunk, who it turns out had liked Sneaks. Since Spoon's booking agent lives in Superchunk's home base of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and works with the band, he suggested that Daniel send them the Girls Can Tell tapes. It took "a long time" before he heard back, but when he did, it was Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, who also runs indie label Merge Records, that rang up Daniel and said the wanted to put out the album.
Today, things are already more serendipitous at the band's new home. A glowing review on NPR's All Things Considered upon Girls' mid-February release has netted the band very tangible results.
"Our first-week record sales were way better than anything we've ever had before," says Daniel. "Not that they're Top 40 sales."
At the assertion that Spoon isn't a Top 40 band, Daniel fires back.
"Yeah, but we should be."
He's laughing, but not joking.
"We should be," he repeats. "I think enough people would like us if they heard us. That goes for a lot of bands. I think that a lot of people would respond to a lot of music that's considered outside of the mainstream, including Spoon, if some people at major labels, and at radio, and at MTV had balls. But they don't. They always appeal to the lowest common denominator."
Probably. But now there's a few public-radio-loving progressive soccer moms that may have picked up Girls Can Tell. Now maybe they tap their feet on the floorboard of their Volvos to "Lines in the Suit." Now maybe people have more than four months to find the band's latest gem before it gets deleted. Now maybe Spoon will experience sales at least remotely commensurate with quality.
If nothing else, however, maybe Daniel has found a place where he can be satisfied with what he's capable of.
"This record is the first one I really like enough to say, 'Okay, we did something that, if we're no longer a band next year, I'm always going to be, "I really like this one. I think it's really good."' It's something that, at least for me, will stand the test of time."