Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Congratulating Spoon -- Alas

FIRST of all, I'm awfully pleased that one of my favorite working bands -- the Austin/ Portland combo Spoon -- has been voted the decade's best indie rock band, American division, by the readers of The Misread City. More proof that my Steve McQueen/ '59 Miles Davis/ Audrey Hepburn- digging followers have great taste. (And an incredibly retro sensibility, but maybe that is my fault.)

For this indie list, I tried to concentrate on groups that were of the 21st century rather than '90s bands that held on. I included Sleater-Kinney, because of a very strong Indian summer, but left off some of my favorites, like Built to Spill and Yo La Tengo. And while Spoon began in the '90s, and put out at least one good record before the turn of the century, the winning streak that began with 2001's "Girls Can Tell" has made them the most consistently exciting indie band of the period. They're also a sharp, focussed, driven live band, and they no longer remind me unduly of their influences -- Pixies, Wire, Revolver-era Beatles.

Some of their best songs: "Rhythm and Soul," "Don't Make Me a Target," "Sister Jack." Here is the atypical tune "I Turn My Camera On," which still has their characteristic mix of minimalism and rhythm. And here is the sly, funky "Don't You Evah," with a more typical nasal Britt Daniel vocal.

So I've already said I love this band., and I can't wait to hear their next LP, "Transference," which comes out in mid-January. (Here is Sunday's NYT piece, not by me.)

But there's also something a bit deflating about Spoon being the decade's winner. This is a modest group that does something very specific and often low-key. Compared to the greatest Amerindie bands of the 90s -- Pavement, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo, etc. -- they are stylistically conservative. Compare them to 80s indie -- Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Replacements -- they seem unambitious.

I won't blame Spoon for this -- they are a kickass group and keep getting better. But it makes me wonder if indie has lost its ability to innovate, to surprise us. Another of decade's most celebrated bands, The Strokes, sounds to me like a pedestrian pastiche, and groups that I was once excited about -- Interpol, for instance, the Shins, the Decemberists -- haven't really gone anywhere.

We're a long way from indie rock being a dead language, but it has certainly become a constricting one. Here's hoping that the 2010s show a group or movement arriving to open it up a bit. Two of my runners up -- TV on the Radio, with their baffling blend of Eno, dub and hip hop -- and Wilco, with a commitment to a personal vision -- may show the way forward.

Until then, I"ll be blasting "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga."

Photo credit: Merge Records


Rodak said...

I would definitely have voted for Wilco. They are probably my favorite band. "Summer Teeth" ranks up there with any pop album ever made, imho.

Scott Timberg said...

Wilco a favorite of mine as well, tho I think they may transcend the category of indie rock... search on the site and you'll find my interview with Tweedy a few mos back.

Rodak said...

Yes. I suppose I kinda liked them better when they were definitely in the indie category. But they remain favorites of mine. I'll check out the interview.

Sam Timberg said...

@Rodak - If you had voted for Wilco it would have been a tie with Spoon and we could have just read an article by Scott defending a genre bending band winning in the Indie category! (they were only one vote behind). In my opinion the best band of the aught's, as I've heard them called. Not to mention one of the best bands of the 90's. Frankly, Summer Teeth ranks among Wilco's Alt. Country/ Pop albums to me. I'm not sure they have an entire album that classify's as indie? What do you guys think? What does indie even mean?

Rodak said...

I haven't a clue what "indie" means any more. It used to mean "independently produced," I think--as in released on an independent label--as in "not corporate--as in...well, you get the picture.
When some the "indie" bands began to hit the bigtime in the late eighties and went corporate, the term had already begun to lose its meaning. I mean, was Nirvana an "indie" band, or not?
If it means anything today, it probably refers more to a style, or maybe to an attitude, than it does to the independent ownership of the means of production.

Scott Timberg said...

All musical terms are limiting and imperfect - are the Byrds rock? folk? folk rock? alt country? country rock? -- and indie most of all. I can't think of a better term to describe the sound rooted in the independent labels of the 80s and 90s. "Alternative" never sounded right and sounds less right today.

As Rodak suggests, "indie" is probably most often a way of describing a style rather than denoting label ownership.

It's a bottomless issue, as it is in film as well. With a shape-changing band like Wilco, it all gets even more complicated. But if we don't use terms and categories it becomes impossible to talk about music or any art form. So I'm afraid we're stuck with it.