Following their unceremonious departure from Elektra records, Spoon suffered in a kind of musician's purgatory while vainly searching for a new label. The frustration for Britt Daniel, Spoon's de facto leader, was compounded by the fact that the band had already finished recording its next album. After sending demos to dozens of labels - and receiving dozens of rejection letters - Daniel was feeling, well, kind of washed up. It would have been a very sad story if it wasn?t for the kind people at Merge Records.
It's difficult to understand how any label could pass on an album as effortlessly accomplished as Girls Can Tell. Combining the hushed pop introspection of Big Star's minor key moments with the angular, keyboard-driven minimalism of Chairs Missing-era Wire, Girls Can Tell is an album of sublime longing, punctuated by Daniel's expressive, razor-nicked voice. In his Austin, Texas drawl, Daniel sings songs of love, betrayal, faith and tradition over a spare arrangement of guitar, bass, drums and piano. It all feels a little melancholy.
It's the space within the songs that may be the most salient aspect of Girls Can Tell. While so many bands feel compelled to fill a song up with the unnecessary, Spoon breaks rock 'n' roll down to its base elements, employing only what is needed. Songs like "Believing is Art" are reduced, in parts, to an almost subliminal bass line above a simple, rhythmic pattern. While another band would place rhythm guitar behind the lead, Spoon limits the lead to a rigid, three-note motif and eliminates the extraneous strum. Yet, even without the frills, Girls Can Tell still sounds extraordinary.
Despite these spartan arrangements, the songs themselves are full of texture with Daniel and his bandmates, drummer Jim Eno and bassist Josh Zarbo, augmenting the basic melody with hints of piano or harpsichord. The'effect is often haunting, especially when paired with Daniel's pensive lyrics. "Everything Hits at Once", the first song of the album, begins with a soft keyboard fill and reverberating vibes, as Daniel croons "Don?t say a word, the last one's still stinging." In "Lines in the Suit", the vibes are replaced by piano and off-beat rhythm guitar, with three overdubbed Daniels singing in harmony: "How come I feel so washed up at such a tender age?"
While the bulk of the album does have that sense of minor key sadness, Spoon manages to rock out on a couple of numbers. "Take the Fifth" has the new wave piano and insistent bass of a pre-Warner Elvis Costello as Daniel "talks it up all of Saturday night". "Take a Walk", the band's kiss-off to its former label, is reminiscent of Spoon's Pixie-ish first album Telephono with its coupling of jagged guitar and lyrical vitriol. "And now the song's been sung, It's just the cost of what's been done" spits Daniel with a palpable mix of anger and contempt .
While some of Spoon's critics have rebuked the band for wearing its influences too plainly on its collective sleeve, the band has sublimated these influences on Girls Can Tell, resulting in a sound that is distinctly its own. Yes, the band still steals from its inspirations, nicking a bit from the Gang of Four, the Beatles and a hundred other bands, but it does so with such brash singularity that these influences are incidental to the results. Girls Can Tell is an album of moody brilliance and minimalist pop that improves with each listen. As each song becomes more familiar, its textures - the odd, ancillary sounds and keyboard fills - are increasingly apparent and increasingly vital to the song's design. Despite the spare arrangements, Daniel's songs are surprisingly complex. Already, Girls Can Tell feels like a classic.