Prior to heading out on its mammoth, six-month international tour earlier this year, Spoon was facing a problem.
Its new album, Hot Thoughts, had been an ambitious undertaking. There were more instruments, more synthesizers, more personnel and more studio tinkering than the band members had relied on for their eight prior albums.
While it paid off — Hot Thoughts landed Spoon its second No. 1 spot on the Adult Alternative charts in its 20-plus year career, alongside rave reviews — the songs were proving hard to recreate live.
“Not that Spoon in the past hasn’t experimented in the studio,” says Alex Fischel, the group’s guitarist since 2014. “But there was a lot more studio-based sounds [on Hot Thoughts], synthesized sounds that aren’t necessarily as easy to do live or [don’t] come to mind as easy to do live.”
So the four-piece, including frontman Britt Daniel, drummer Jim Eno and bassist Rob Pope, took inventory of which songs needed to be scrapped, and which needed to be pared down.
“We went through every song and asked, ‘What do we know we can do without?’” says Fischel. “Sometimes things we thought we could do without, we couldn’t.”
“Us,” the sprawling sexy sax track that closes the album, was one of the first to go, for the simple reason that the saxophonist, Ted Taforo, wouldn’t be touring with them. Ditto for Sharon Van Etten, who lends her voice to “First Caress.”
Brad Shenfeld, who previously played in The Alien Beats with Eno and Daniel and is now the band’s lawyer (a story for another time), provided saz (a Middle Eastern string instrument) and darbuka (goblet drum) to “Pink Up.” The liner notes are filled with details like these.
So how do you bring these ambitious songs to life on a budgeted lineup?
It takes a few listens, but if you can cut through headline-stealing changes in the band’s sound, you’ll hear the same old Spoon. The trademark crunch-and-scratch dynamic of the guitars and Daniel’s voice are as present (and winning) here as ever, and Eno provides some of his best work on this album, which is saying something.
Dave Fridmann, the producer and recording engineer known for his sprawling psychedelic work with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, lends his talents to Hot Thoughts, and the influence isn’t hard to detect. If the album were easy to sum up — and it’s not — you might say that Hot Thoughts reflects a subtle shift toward the Lips’ world of light-hearted psychedelia, without losing its footing back here on earth.
It’s true, Spoon has never sounded so disco — “Shotgun,” in particular, sounds like something Donna Summer would have rocked out of this world — but to focus too much on that is to miss how danceable and fun its music is.
The magic of Spoon has always been in its balance of substance and levity — the ability to hit hard, emotional notes and still make people dance. At Stage AE on July 26, even without saz, saxophones or Sharon Van Etten, the band will do just that.