Telephono/Soft Effects EP
C / B+
efore Spoon was just another marginally interesting underdog story after a sour bout with Elektra Records, let alone lauded by respectable newspapers and internauts, they were tight-sweater underfed indie rock schleps. And I was completely outraged; I remember thinking—I’ve always been naïve—that it was criminal for Britt Daniel and Jim Eno to have to hold day jobs in Austin, Texas as late as 2001. Yes, even if that year’s Girls Can Tell was one of their least interesting records. Justice was served slowly, but Spoon has inarguably benefited from their growing pains; they’re one of the few American indie rock bands whose success seems completely unhurried and in turn, according to our weird moral schematic of artistic credibility, truly deserved. Sniff for a Spoon backlash—nothing. In fact, the reissuing of their first two Matador releases, 1996’s Telephono and 1997’s Soft Effects EP is probably the most formal pampering they’ve had yet.
Telephono hasn’t aged well, but it was born half-ugly anyway. With Kill the Moonlight and last year’s Gimme Fiction, Spoon figured out how to make the indie rock equivalent of early horror and film noir: cool and hard-bitten; music that never shows the murder but shows its shadow on the alley brick. Listening to Spoon spend half of Telephono trying to find some avenues towards subtlety in the Pixies is like watching them trying to catch a greased animal, but less funny. The Pixies were a hot band, blatant in their violence and surrealism. Spoon were always more trim and straightforward—though no more or less weird—but they didn’t fully realize their Guided By Voices/Wire plan of microeconomics until 1999’s A Series of Sneaks. Some things about Telephono stay salient: the propulsive murder mystery of “All The Negatives Have Been Destroyed” and the scrappy throwaway “Primary” would’ve been completely out of place on Matador’s mid-90s roster of classic rock honkers, but they point to the fact that Spoon was one of the first 90s indie bands to recapitulate power-pop and post-punk signifiers.
The 15 minutes of Soft Effects make it easy to forget Telephono entirely. Two of the songs on Soft Effects fade out, “I Could See the Dude” fades in and then stops abruptly in the middle of a drone, and the EP’s closer, the moonlit Replacements swoon of “Loss Leaders,” takes a full minute to die. These techniques aren’t mind-blowing or exclusive, but for Spoon, they signified a cozying up to the mystery that they’ve made so integral to their last few records. “I Could See the Dude” is still one of the band’s greatest recordings. The recursive arpeggio of the guitar is oceanic; not like Freud, but like the soft-focus salt stink of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” Though we walk in on the middle of something that stays indistinct over the course of the song, we leave on sharp tones of shame and fear: “Yeah, so take it off and take it off again / As the crackers watch you take off again.” The rhythms stiffen, guitars tremolo in cheap stop-motion, and everything under them drops out—a great ellipses, an untranslatable Morse stutter.
In that stutter, and in the coolly romantic peaks of “Get Out the State” or the echo handclap section of “Wating for the Kid to Come Out,” you can see Spoon’s face form. Strange, basic sounds start to take over; the limp pretense of minimalism—three guys making a cheap recording in a garage, blah blah—turns into a studied, practiced sound of restraint. By Kill the Moonlight, they scrapped neutral song elements entirely, leaving glowing husks of auxiliary chatter like “Small Stakes” or “Paper Tiger”; for me, half of that album’s presence is feeling shocked in the wake of what’s been stripped away.
Merge has thoughtfully packaged the reissues as a two-disc set instead of tacking Soft Effects at the end of Telephono, which is to say that even they understand that most people are going to see disc one as a JV basketball shot of the boys in high socks and Rec Specs and disc two as the itchy moment before sophomore year dance: a sly smile spread across their lips, half-innocent, half-worrying—then and now, intriguing as hell.