Rating the Hype with Spoon and the Levellers

A quick one this week, ‘cause it’s my birthday. I’ve amassed quite the backlog of CDs I must review, and with Coldplay and Dream Theater next week, I can’t really take a vacation…

The indie hype machine is an amazing thing, and I never seem able to buy into it. This is beyond the journalistic worship of a band like the aforementioned Coldplay, who gets monolithic towers of pre-release adoration built for them by the record company and hundreds of paid shills. The hype surrounding Coldplay has nothing to do with the quality of the record, but rather is all about the constructed importance of the band itself, turning every move they make into an event akin to gods walking among us. It really is worship – they’ve created a religion, and they’re hoping to convert millions of faithfuls by June 7, so that the revelation will be received, and the collection plates will overflow.

No, what I’m talking about is the seemingly personal stake indie hype-sters seem to have in their favorite little bands producing genius works. They grab hold of little bands like the Arcade Fire and the White Stripes and elevate their middling achievements into works of massive importance. And then someone like me listens to the albums, and is left nonplussed. I liked the Arcade Fire record. It was decent. It wasn’t anywhere near the godlike brilliance some have attributed to it. It’s almost as if the critics couldn’t allow it to suck, even a little, or the significance they’ve attached to it would topple and crush them.

Same goes with the new Spoon album, Gimme Fiction. Dig the universal acclaim this record has been getting, in every indie-cred mag and website. Words like “phenomenal” and “brilliant” have been batted about pretty often, from numerous sources. Then dig the record itself, and you’ll probably wonder just what the hell they’re talking about. Even for Spoon fans, this record represents a downshift in quality, a slip into the mediocre. But it’s like people are afraid to say so, because they’ve convinced themselves that the Spoon album just has to be good. It just has to.

Look, I’m a Star Wars fan. I love the movies, I really do, but if I’m approaching them critically, I can admit that they all suck. The dialogue is rotten, the acting is wooden, Jar Jar is the spawn of Satan, and overall the whole thing is silly. I would never say these movies are phenomenal works of art. They’re important to me, I wanted them to be good, and they worked for me, but “phenomenal” and “brilliant” are words you’ll never hear me use in conjunction with them.

I will also readily admit that I might be listening for different things than your average indie critic when I hear Spoon. I’m looking for well-written songs with good melodies, and Spoon has delivered on that before, most notably on Girls Can Tell. This time, not so much. Only a couple of songs stand out – “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” the one here most like recent Spoon, and “My Mathematical Mind,” probably the most successful number. Most of the rest of it shuffles by on pounding pianos and very little musical inspiration.

“I Turn My Camera On” has been fellated on other sites, some calling it a masterpiece, and I’m just not hearing it. It’s two chords, repeated “Bennie and the Jets” style, with some falsetto over it. That’s all. Britt Daniel has forgotten to write melodies this time out, and while the minimalist-with-flourishes production (which has a lot to do with only Daniel and drummer Jim Eno remaining in the band) is nifty, the songs are largely boring. Some hit, like the sweet “I Summon You,” but most miss, like the too-simple “Sister Jack.” And then there’s “Was It You,” the very definition of filler – a repeated synth beat that goes on and on. It makes four minutes seem like 70.

When all is said and done, though, Spoon is just a pretty good band that has made a couple of pretty good albums. Gimme Fiction is not one of their better ones. That’s all there is to say. They don’t represent anything larger, they haven’t rewritten the Book of Rock, and as of yet, they’ve never written a song that can’t be honestly described as a ditty. Rather too much of this record sounds tossed off and slapped together, but the band themselves said it was their best before it came out, and the indie hype machine clicked into lockstep, convinced that Gimme Fiction Means Something. I will probably ask this same question next week about Coldplay, but why can’t it just be music? Why must it be Significant?

It seems to me that there’s an indie hierarchy, based on perceived cool, that is just as exclusionary as the mainstream machine. Britt Daniel is Cool, therefore his band can do no wrong. Rivers Cuomo was Cool once, but isn’t anymore. Jeff Tweedy, however, remains Cool, and thus his craptastic work on A Ghost is Born (which equals Rivers’ recent disintegrations) gets praised and analyzed. The Wilco reviews were hilarious – it’s as if many critics said, “Well, Tweedy hasn’t given us much to work with here, but if we argue his genius enough, we can make even this into a respected record.” The focus isn’t on the work, it’s on maintaining the constructs of Cool that have been built around the work. Tweedy’s a genius, therefore if you think his new record sucks, then it’s your fault. Cover your ears and repeat as necessary.

And I was really hoping to use the new Levellers album as a good example of bands that slip through the cracks in this hierarchy, bands that are not Cool but do deliver solid work. It was a good theory, but the band foiled my efforts by making their eighth full-length a bit of a disappointment. Still, let’s give it a go.

You’re not going to read about the importance of the Levellers on any indie-minded review sites. You won’t see a retrospective of their work, even though they’ve been around since the late ‘80s. They’re known as “that fiddle band” in the U.S., if they’re known at all, and most lost track of them after Levelling the Land, their 1992 sophomore effort. But they’re a better and more adventurous band than Spoon, based on the experimental streak that runs through their catalog, and the surprisingly high success rate of those experiments.

You won’t even find their most experimental (and successful, artistically speaking) album, Hello Pig, in stores here. It’s a studio wonderland, a massive psychedelic pop playground that hits hard when it has to, yet breezes by when it can. It’s the most un-Levellers thing they’ve done, and for such a huge flight of fancy, the band aced the landing. Two years ago, they abandoned that path for the more traditional Levellers sound of Green Blade Rising, kind of a pumped-up Waterboys folk-punk with excellent songs and rousing choruses. I rated it sternly, but only because Hello Pig was such a triumph.

The new one, Truth and Lies, stumbles a bit more than I’d like, and I think the trouble is the production, not the songs. This one has a lot in common with their self-titled album from 1994, in that it’s over-produced and stuffed into a small space. The problem may be in the mix – this sounds like it was recorded inside a three-by-three metal box, and I think a good mixer could give the instruments more space, and turn this into a killer record.

Because the songs are there. Opener “Last Man Alive” rocks, though it takes a few spins to hear the rest of the band under the crushing guitar. There’s more fiddle-and-drum-loops stuff on this record than any since the early ‘90s, and they work on the slow creeper “Confess.” The second half is full of slower numbers that would be affecting if not for the sound. As it is, only “Said and Done” rises above, though expansive closer “Sleeping” comes close. In thinking about it, I wouldn’t mind a live recording of this whole thing, in sequence, because this could have been (and almost is) a great record.

But it doesn’t change the fact that the Levellers are a great band, far more deserving of critical praise and analysis than most of the hipper-than-thous taking center stage at the Cool Conventions. The Levs have never tried to be Cool, never wrapped themselves in an air of mystery and significance. They’re just six ragamuffin Brits with political opinions and great songwriting skills, and they’ve been making superb music for going on two decades, never sitting still. The Levellers were here before Spoon, and will probably outlast them, and they’ll do it without having to tap into the indie hype machine.

Yeesh, sorry for the screed. Last rant of my 30th year! Next week, Coldplay for sure.

See you in line Tuesday morning.