Album: Hot Thoughts
In Brief: The band’s ninth album is a kaleidoscope of colorful sounds befitting its cover art. I love how the urgent, raspy vocals of Britt Daniel collide with the inventive percussion grooves, the jangly guitars and layered keyboard sounds, and the occasional atmospheric bits as well. They’ve got a streamlined indie pop aesthetic that keeps the songs mostly concise and flowing from one into the other with laser-guided accuracy, but they also leave space for the occasional experimental or “jam band”-type indulgence, which works out a lot better than it probably sounds like it should. It’s hard to believe it took me THIS long to get into these guys.
“It’s about dang time he got into Spoon.” That’s what I imagine long-time fans of Spoon saying to me when I mention that I’ve just recently given the band a try, with their ninth album, 2017’s Hot Thoughts, as my entry point. There are a lot of other long-running bands I’ve heard of many times over the years but never actually bothered to check out, where I could argue that I simply didn’t think they were up my alley genre-wise. But I really have no excuse for sleeping on Spoon for this long. I knew several people who were into them. I knew they were an indie rock band that had been doing their thing since the early 90s. Their name even became a running gag on a discussion board I used to participate in where someone noticed that anyone typing the word “spoon” got it auto-corrected to “sthingy” by the built-in censors, and just for hilarity’s sake, that was left in by the administrators when they removed the rest of the naughty language filters. I guess I just hadn’t read that one review or had someone point out that one song that would truly pique my curiosity. Ultimately, this is another one of those bands that I can thank the Velocities in Music podcast for, since the two guys who run it are longtime fans who went so far as to do a deep dive of their entire discography in a few videos last year, and who gave a glowing recommendation of their newest album and especially its title track during their year-end roundup. I finally dug into Hot Thoughts in January… and man, let me tell you that I have no regrets about finally taking the plunge. I keep going back to this one like it’s crack. It might not be a perfect indie rock record, but it’s pretty darn close.
So let’s assume that I now have to describe the sound of Spoon to some of you out there who have also never listened to the band. That’s a reasonable assumption, considering how long it took me to familiarize myself with them. “Indie rock” doesn’t really cut it because that could mean a myriad of things nowadays, but if I had to take a stab, I’d place them somewhere between rhythmic pop, art rock, and jam band. At least on Hot Thoughts, percussion plays a huge role, featuring rather addictive grooves throughout. At times I’d consider these grooves to be a bit soulful, which fits the sometimes rapsy and exciteable vocal approach of lead singer/songwriter Britt Daniel. Yet it’s important that the grooves don’t ever sidetracking the record to the point where it feels like longtime drummer Jim Eno outshines Daniel. These two men are the creative forces that have been with the band the longest, and their method of bouncing ideas off of each other to shape the band’s sound and overall approach seems to be pretty malleable, leading them to create tightly wound pop songs with a traditional verse/chorus structure on some occasions, and more free-form compositions that take a little time to fully get going once you get into a few of the album’s deep cuts. Jangly guitar riffs and playful pianos and keyboards are prominent on several tracks, which helps to ensure that the band is never so narrowly focused on riding a groove that they forget to attach a solid melody to it. Unusual instrumentation such as the marimba or the saxophone shows up on a few tracks, making it that much harder to pin their sound down to a single genre. I often feel like I’m diving into a much longer and denser album than the 10 tracks and 41 minute runtime would normally imply. That’s a good thing. It means that the boatload of catchy songs one hears at the outset don’t grow tiresome once you get used to the band’s shtick, because they find entertaining ways to change it up on nearly every track.
If I had to sum up Spoon’s lyrical approach on this album in just two words, I would probably choose the words “open ended”. A lot of songs seem to be about romantic or sexual attraction, i.e. having the “hots” for someone, yet there are also tales of missed connections between former (or potential) partners, and a handful of more esoteric songs that hint at both physical and substance-induced forms of travel. maybe one or two songs are more politically charged, but for the most part I’d put the album in the “sensual, but not overtly sexual” category, if that makes any sense. This is a record that I enjoy a great deal, even though I have to admit I haven’t spent a ton of time digging into what the lyrics are really about. The sound of Hot Thoughts is the bigger draw, and while I wouldn’t say any of the lyrics stick out as poorly written or cliched, it’s not a record that I’m terribly likely to quote at length. Britt Daniel could sing gibberish on most of these tracks and I’d probably still get the same basic mood from them (and that mood would generally be “excited and intrigued”). So don’t take what I’m saying as a knock on his songwriting – it’s just less of a prominent attribute for me than it usually is when I’m listening to other bands. Whether being less lyrically direct and leaving the general feel of a song up to the musical textures they create and the listener’s imagination is something Spoon has done from the beginning, or a tactic they’ve picked up along the way, isn’t a question I can really answer. But on this album at least, the approach suits them well. They’re solid performers who know how to let their instruments do most of the talking, and that’s what keeps me almost endlessly fascinated with Hot Thoughts.
1. Hot Thoughts
I love it when my first introduction to a band is a song that sounds like what I’d expect a band to sound like based on their name. Honestly, I can’t even recall the last time that happened, since band names don’t always lend themselves well to onomatopoeia. But I could swear I’m hearing the actual sound of spoons banging on glasses of water in this song (you know, like in those Chili’s commercials that have made a comeback recently), and it’s just a small part of the tapestry of percussive sounds that makes it so incredibly addictive. The guitar riffs are quite punchy once they get going, too, and I’m instantly amazed at how effectively all the layers of sound come together to create such a densely-packed performance where the verse, chorus, and instrumental breaks flow into each other so smoothly that I don’t even register one as a bigger hook than the others. EVERYTHING about this song is catchy indie pop bliss. The verses set up the theme of Hot Thoughts – to the extent that there is one – as a sort of unrequited burning desire. This might seem like your average “guy pining for a hot girl he knows is too god for him” type of tune, if not for the twist that it’s about a random passerby hitting on Britt Daniel’s girlfriend while they were walking down a street in Tokyo. The guy sort of fetishizes her foreign-ness, and offers her odd compliments such as noting how white her teeth are, and I suppose Britt was just standing on the sidelines, too amused to point out to the poor guy that she was already seeing someone. I guess since he didn’t know much about this guy’s backstory, he made up a bit of fantastical backstory to explain the things the guy would gladly set aside to win over this woman’s love: “Took time off from my kingdom/Took a break from the war/Took time off from my kingdom/Raise up my creatures, diamonds from space/True facets and features.” Either he fancies himself some sort of a sorcerer traveling between realms, or else he’s a professional video gamer. In any case, I like that the song doesn’t disparage the guy – it just tries to imagine the whole encounter from a different point of view, and that’s always a good tool for a songwriter to have in his arsenal.
The second song is almost as interesting to me for the things it doesn’t do as the things that it does. The opening verse goes in a much more electronic direction than I’d have expected from the tight, but sorta-jammy opening track, letting the keyboards establish the main chord progression of the song, which almost feels like a mid-tempo interlude that’s going to lead into something quite different at first. The weird part is that the tempo suddenly shifts about a third of the way into the song, throwing me for a loop at first because I was really enjoying the keyboard groove. But then I realize that even though the song is getting a whole lot rockier at this point (with Rob Pope‘s bass prominent in the mix as well as the guitars), they’re still maintaining the same chord progression and melody, just at a more hurried pace and with more urgent instrumentation. It’s a good way to keep a song interesting that never wavers from that one simple progression – otherwise it would just be down and back up, down and back up again, at the same speed, all the way through. The percussion changes quite dramatically over the course of the song, throwing in shakers and tambourines at a few points and making sure that the groove builds in intensity instead of simply repeating itself, while there’s room for a few guitar breaks and for Britt’s vocals to let loose. (He couldn’t have come back around to the line “C’mon, show me some spirit” at a better time.) While I can’t hazard a guess as to why the title is all crammed together without any spaces, I do appreciate how the urgency of the song informs the lyrics, which are begging someone to spill secrets that they apparently haven’t told anyone else. It’s not communicated so much in a tawdry “I know what skeletons you have in the closet”sort of way, but more in a sympathetic sort of way, as if the person is so used to others tuning them out and not taking their innermost hopes and fears seriously, that they’ve stopped trying to communicate them at all, and the song’s trying to get them to start again.
3. Do I Have to Talk You into It
This song has a more relaxed vibe, with its steady, chunky mid-tempo beat and its reverb-laden piano riding another slick “up-and-down” type of chord progression throughout the song. While this one has more of a traditional verse/chorus structure, it once again benefits from a bit of variation in the keyboard and drum sounds to keep it from getting too repetitive. I can’t tell for the life of me what Britt is so determined to talk someone into – at times I think he’s just trying to get a girl to go out with him, at times I think it’s something more sinister, like coercing a partner in crime to do some sort of dirty work for him, on pain of being tortured in a cruel and unusual manner. He sounds kind of ominous here, is what I guess I’m saying, and it gives the song an extra bit of murky depth to offset its otherwise easygoing nature. A small bit of the jam-band tendency shows up at the end, when Jim pulls off a few false stops, only to keep going again on the drums and let the band ruminate on that cool piano riff a little bit longer. It runs the risk of getting repetitive, but just when you think they’re going to take it around for a second victory lap, it turns out to be a fakeout, giving us a very slick transition into the next track.
4. First Caress
The shortest track on the album is one that I find myself wishing could be a tad longer. I guess they didn’t want to have too many in a row that felt like extended jams, so this one runs at a tight 2:48, just two verses and choruses and it’s out. The fast-paced beat and slinky piano melody are just so seductive in this one that I’m slightly bummed to have it ripped out from under me so soon. But the song does more than enough to make its mark in the time allotted. The title might actually be a bit misleading, since Britt is confronting an ex-lover here and marveling at how alien her world now seems compared to his, pointing out that the shine has worn off of his infatuation for her, so she’s not likely to win him back even though he fondly remembers her as his first. I love that he actually drops the word “dispossessed” into the chorus – I has to look that one up just to be sure it supported the impression I was getting from the rest of the lyrics. The only real stumble here is a bit of a goofy observation about coconut milk and coconut water in the second verse, that might be too specific for a song that otherwise doesn’t spend its time listing off detailed quirks and pet peeves. But the Muse-esque piano solo right before it more than makes up for that little misstep.
5. Pink Up
It’s interesting to me how the album’s longest track follows its shortest, and yet the handoff from one to the other is almost seamless. Cutting “First Caress” short to lead into the cool, otherworldly intro to this track was a worthwhile creative decision, I have to admit. This one takes its time to get going, being mostly instrumental for its nearly six-minute run, but filling most of that space with a delectable vibraphone melody and some killer percussion. Jim’s going non-stop in this song, riding the hi-hats like there’s no tomorrow and threatening to shake the entire building off its foundation with those rattling drum fills. Just to make things extra-proggy, the rhythm seems to hiccup every few measures, adding in an extra beat or two, yet this assimilates nicely into the overall groove of the song, if for no other reason than because it’s delightfully weird to begin with. When the vocals finally come in, they sound quite different from the rest of the record – perhaps multiple voices are singing at once, but I honestly can’t tell because they’re a bit lower in the mix and it could just be Britt tape-looped a few times. The lyrics are appropriately psychedelic and somewhat non-sequitur: “If you leave us for later/Break off from everyday/Spend a week in the moment/Take a train to Marrakesh.” I find it interesting how specific locations show up in songs that are otherwise wide open in terms of possible interpretations – first Japan in “Hot Thoughts”, now Morocco. The songs may not be entirely about these places, but it adds to the “exotic” mood that a number of these songs are going for. Since this track is so off the beaten path in terms of this album’s overall sound, I’m sure some will tire of it, especially since its outro takes quite a bit to wind down and it doesn’t do a whole lot that wasn’t heard in the intro. But I’m mesmerized by this one all the way through. It’s unique and exquisitely performed.
6. Can I Sit Next to You
This one’s a total earworm. The funky guitar licks, the snapping and stomping rhythm, and the slightly menacing synths sitting on top of it all are really hard for me to get out of my head. While Britt’s vocal approach and overall demeanor here are similar to how he sounded on “Do I Have to Talk You into It”, this track seems to be more directly flirtatious. He’s just walking around Memphis, taking in the local music scene, and apparently enjoying a phase of his life when he’s got no strings attached and no reservations about chatting up someone cute he sees at a bar with an open seat next to her. The lyrics to this one might be more about alliteration and fun rhymes than anything profound. I’d probably rather not know the meaning of “All the kicks from the sticks/All the hits that we took/All the stitches we got/All our brains so cooked”, but it sure is a fun tongue-twister. Next to the title track, this is probably the most addictive song on the album. I’m aware that there’s a possible double meaning in that statement.
7. I Ain’t the One
This track’s a bit of a breather – the drums sit out a good chunk of it, leaving a vintage keyboard and Britt’s voice hanging out there all by themselves. When the percussion comes in later, it’s got a satisfyingly chunky groove to it, but I appreciate the use of space at the beginning of the song before that happens – it’s like the band wants to zoom in on the narrator’s paranoia. The lyrics don’t give me a whole lot to go on here – just a man rambling about how the moon, the night, the law, etc. are all gonna come looking for him, and he’s gonna claim he’s not the one they’re looking for. The reason these various entities are after him isn’t really specified, but there’s a vaguely metaphysical feel to the way he puts these words together that almost makes it feel like it could be a deep cut on a My Morning Jacket record.
8. Tear It Down
This is the only track on Hot Thoughts that I find myself getting tired of. I can’t say that it’s noticeably different from its surroundings – the piano, percussion style, and Britt’s somewhat dry vocal narration are all elements I’ve gotten used to at this point. This one just has a relaxed enough tempo and a “talky” enough verse that it seems to really downplay the melody or anything resembling a strong hook. It’s trapped somewhere between smooth and edgy, and it doesn’t establish quite enough of a groove to justify the extended vamp that it gets at the end. The lyrics may be some of the album’s most intriguing, imagining that he’s a bystander to some sort of a car accident or other emergency that leads to him never meeting someone he’s supposed to meet. Maybe in a parallel universe the tragedy never happens, and they bump into each other and fall in love instead, but in this world, they’re passing ships in the night, never given a reason to care what happens to each other beyond the fleeting musings of a man’s overactive imagination. I’m not entirely sure what that has to do with the chorus, which has much more simple lyrics about tearing down any wall that the world tries to build around them, but maybe the wall represents more of an abstract concept, like a fate he’s not supposed to be able to fight? Just spitballing here. It’s more interesting to conjecture what this track might be about than it is to actually listen to it, I’m afraid.
Uh-oh… is this a political song? I feel like almost any song about conflicts involving guns gets interpreted as political by default these days. This is definitely a change of pace compared to most of the album – the drums and guitars have more of a dry, gritty sound to them, and there’s not as much variance to the tone of them over the course of the song, which I suppose fits its narrative about a conflict which quickly escalates to the point of a gun being whipped out. Britt sings it like he’s talking to a stubborn person who will never listen and who is only interested in proving how tough they are. Good old fisticuffs probably would have settled the matter if it couldn’t be hashed out with mere words, but now there’s a deadly weapon involved and it’s no longer anywhere near a fair fight. This song might be a bit of a buzzkill considering that the rest of the album is noticeably more imaginative and exploratory, while this one seems to be communicating feelings of exasperation and pessimism over whether any of this will ever change. But it’s a good shot in the arm tempo-wise after a few downbeat tracks, and the hook is pretty darn solid despite this one not even trying to be a feel-good song. It was one of the first tracks on the record to really grab my attention, and it still hasn’t worn out its welcome.
The final track originally wasn’t even meant to be a composition unto itself. It’s a spacious instrumental in which the lead instrument is the saxophone, and the band’s use of reverb and dramatic pauses gives it an early 90s feel, reminding me at times of some of the more eerie tunes from the Dave Matthews Band‘s Under the Table and Dreaming. This was initially meant as the lead-in to “Pink Up” (which I guess they decided not to just call “Up” so that these two tracks wouldn’t seem like a Peter Gabriel reference), and you can hear echoes of its vibraphone melody and drum cadences cropping up again in this one – it just isn’t nearly as dense or groove-oriented. It’s far and away the most exploratory thing on the record, and while some might be miffed that 11 whole minutes of a 42-minute album are essentially an extension of the same song, I rather enjoy the bookend effect that it gives the record. All by itself, this instrumental would seem a bit random, but since it’s a mood piece reprising one of my favorite experiments from earlier in the album, I think it strikes just the right balance between thematic continuity and left-field weirdness.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hot Thoughts $2
Do I Have to Talk You into It $1.25
First Caress $1.50
Pink Up $1.50
Can I Sit Next to You $1.75
I Ain’t the One $1
Tear It Down $.50
Britt Daniel: Lead vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion
Jim Eno: Drums, percussion, programming
Rob Pope: Bass, guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Alex Fischel: Keyboards, guitar, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: