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MR|Review – Spoon’s "Transference," Vampire Weekend’s "Contra," The xx’s "xx"

24 January 2010 in MR|Review

“Transference” poignantly illustrates the difference between “catchy” and “poppy”; it’s the former, only.

spoon-transference.jpg Must-hear!
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Owww! My ears!

Songs on Spoon’s latest album seem to fall into two categories: arranged and de-arranged*.  The arranged tunes are new Spoon classics, the kind of hooky, simmering jams the band has been cranking out since “Girls Can Tell” (“Written in Reverse,” “Trouble Comes Running,” “Out Go The Lights”).  They’re so consistent, it would be easy to take them for granted if their consistency didn’t make your next favorite band sound like fakers.  The arranged stuff gels as songs, with verses and choruses, and reminds me more of older Spoon than “Ga…” or “Gimme Fiction.”

The de-arrangements are stuffed full of memorable hooks that are assembled into less-recognizable sections that aren’t easily classified into traditional pop structure (“Before Destruction,” “Is Love Forever?” “Nobody Gets Me But You”).  It’s tempting to call this the experimental stuff, but it isn’t for Spoon; this type of production has been part of their DNA for a long time, and they pull it off.  I’m as likely to sing a catchy part from “Before Destruction” as “Who Makes Your Money?”

Of course the songs exist on a spectrum between the artificial poles of “arranged/de-arranged.”  The record as a whole plays as a weirdo collection of super-catchy rocking-out bits.

Describing Spoon as minimalist never quite rang true to me.  They’re economic; they don’t waste a note.

“Nobody Gets Me But You” is a great tune, but leaves the album feeling unfinished.  It’s not a closer; I always think there’s one more song to come.  Thinking about the psychotherapeutic record title, maybe that’s intentional.
Another way I describe the five-star “must-hear” rating is “revelatory.”  While “Transference” is outstanding, it hasn’t yet shown me anything new about music, myself, or the world.

*Note; not “deranged.”

Vampire-Weekend-Contra.jpg Must-hear!
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Owww! My ears!

Vampire Weekend’s debut seemed impossible to follow up; I could not imagine what this record would sound like.  Somehow, almost magically, it is perfect.  I didn’t let myself work up hopes that the band would both experiment and succeed wildly, but if I had they would have been fulfilled.

Beautiful earworm hooks, stellar lines like “Here comes a feeling you thought you’d forgotten” and “My ears are blown to bits / from all the rifle hits / but still I crave that sound…,” Afro-pop tones, meticulous performances – they’re all here.  The arrangements are lightweight and underplayed, ending up being all the more meaningful for it.

Comparing this record to “Transference,” I’d give it the edge, which surprises me.  I enjoyed “Vampire Weekend,” but never figured I’d become as passionate about the band as I have in the past two weeks.

The XX XX Cover.jpg Must-hear!
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Owww! My ears!

“Contra” and “Transference” have been almost universally lauded by critics.  So has “xx” by The xx.  The difference is there’s nothing special about “xx.”  It’s completely serviceable, nondescript indie music.
Some of my usual haunts – AV Club, P4k, AllMusic – raved about “xx,” and it made a ton of year-end lists.  If you’re hearing something I’m not, I invite you to comment and set me straight.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience.

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