Cuddle punk

Spoon is almost as well known for its record label troubles as it is for its music. Since 1996, the Austin, Texas-based rockers have bounced from indie giant Matador Records to Elektra to Merge to the tiny Saddle Creek label. Just after 1998’s A Series of Sneaks hit the shelves, Elektra dropped them (despite promising it wouldn’t), prompting Spoon to release a two-song CD full of jibes at an A&R guy. Considering those biz calamities, not to mention that these guys just happen to play criminally underappreciated pop-rock and are led by a sensitive guy with an ear for tunefulness, Spoon must sound a lot like Big Star’s second coming, right?

Sorta. Spoon’s singer-songwriter-guitar-slinger Britt Daniels is a ’90s guy, less earnest and less mopey than Alex Chilton ever was. Granted, he’s not much for Stephan Jenkins and he’s not much for Stephen Malkmus, either. His hooks are neither glossed-over nor fuzzed-out, and he’d rather write songs for kids and 20-somethings who are smart enough to avoid modern rock radio, but who aren’t necessarily smart-asses.

Amid this happy marriage of tune and affect, Daniels and his mates pack the 11 tracks on Girls Can Tell full of stripped-down, early Police-style grooves, Elvis Costello-like punchiness and Daniels’ mildly abrasive singing. The real treat, though, comes when you listen to this record the fourth or fifth time: As “Everything Hits at Once” and “This Book Is a Movie” bear witness, melodies that sounded nondescript before suddenly come alive, lyrics that seemed non sequiturs suddenly make sense. As for the tunes that knock you on your ass right away, “Believing Is Art” is a hard-driving, minor-key tour-de-force and “10:20 AM” is wickedly melodic baroque pop.

Though I wish “Fitted Shirt,” which unselfconsciously pilfers the groove of Led Zep’s “Kashmir,” used a better medium than nostalgia to express the travails of lost innocence, Girls Can Tell is not only Spoon’s best record to date, it’s one of the finest records of its kind that’ll be released this year. I hope Elektra execs are kicking themselves.

E-mail Christian Hoard at [email protected].

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