Telephono/Soft Effects

(Matador/Merge; 1996/1997/2006)

By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2008

A few months back Mark Abraham wrote a nice essay for this site about the greatness of Spoon’s second LP, A Series of Sneaks. As someone who still considers that album easily the bands finest work, I was pleased to see some critical agreement. Abraham also successful countered the frequent epithet hurled at Spoon’s early work: derivative. While Spoon certainly owed much to the Pixies, the grunge kids, and even to the fuzzed-out beauty of My Bloody Valentine, Jim Eno and Britt Daniel have always managed to merge their influences and create something more.

While it’s pretty easy to prove that with A Series of Sneaks, Telephono is a different beast. By no means a Pablo Honey-style blemish, it’s nonetheless an undeniably inferior record. Eno and Daniel have their moments, but it never is able to fully separate itself from those who have come before or establish any sort of a cohesive voice.

More than anything the Spoon we hear on this first record sound like a mix of the Pixies and the Toadies; a sort of fetal form of At The Drive-in, if you will. And that’s not all bad, to be sure. Indeed, the first four songs on the album are quite convincing: “Not Turning Off” hints at Eno’s preoccupation with open spaces and “Cvantez,” highlighting Daniel’s crooner/screamer capabilities, would have fit well onto A Series of Sneaks. After that, though, the formula is pretty clear, and the band rarely strays from it. “Dismember” has a sprightly pop intro that quickly devolves into Pixies-aping (complete with female melodic accompaniment); “Towner” would be a whole lot more interesting if Daniel had written a decent set of lyrics. Nonetheless, they close out the set with the excellent “Plastic Mylar,” one of their better early pop numbers and a good indication of what was to come next.

What actually came next, of course, was Soft Effects, an EP that bridges the gap to A Series of Sneaks, and whose five songs easily outpace anything on Telephono. Opening with Daniel’s signature guitar-attack on the vicious “Mountain of Sound,” this is the point where the band really came into itself and where Eno’s brilliant percussive tendencies began to assert themselves. The set-up is perfect; all the pieces of the group lock into place so well that when the minimalist guitar solo kicks in at 1:11 (and then again in a big way at 2:10), it sounds like the absolute culmination of American rock in the 1990’s. Nothing else on the EP can live up to that, though much of the material comes close. The initially sedate, steady-on rocker “Waiting for the Kid to Come Out” is a great little track, while “I Could See the Dude” remains one of my favorite Spoon ballads.

Why Merge has chosen to release these discs now, a decade after their initial release on Matador, is somewhat unclear. It’s not terribly difficult to track these down, and seeing as Merge hasn’t added anything — no demos, early versions, or b-sides — there isn’t any great and pressing reason to pick up the discs. Nonetheless, for the Spoon completist (or even just fan, in the case of Soft Effects), these are a fun summer release.