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Spoon/White Whale

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White Whale performs "The Admiral"

Merge releases have been afforded plenty of space in these pages, but there are reasons for that beyond the fact that several AV music staffers love bands on the label’s roster. Merge is one of the few remaining, successful indie labels regularly issuing new music and consistently getting it to the media. Their promotion department works doggedly to keep writers updated, from e-mails about release dates, tour schedules, promos, and interview opportunities, to packages containing their latest discs. And Merge puts out a wide variety of music within the indie rock framework.

From the country swing and Americana of Lambchop to the lo-fi bedroom pop of East River Pipe, to surprise smash-success art rockers the Arcade Fire and the avant-jazz influenced atmospherics of Spaceheads, Merge has made a conscious effort to never get stuck in a stylistic rut. Likewise, while they own the powerhouse back catalog of seminal indie rockers Superchunk, and recently reissued the first three Dinosaur Jr. albums, they continue to sign and champion exciting new artists like the Rosebuds, Camera Obscura and M.Ward. Merge’s two most recent releases are a good example of the “one foot in the past, but an eye to the future” philosophy that has endeared them to generations of music lovers. The label’s reissue of the first two recordings by critical darlings Spoon follows close on the heels of the debut by Omaha-based pop combo White Whale.

Spoon’s last four albums have elicited drooling adoration from countless critics. But before A Series of Sneaks (1998), Girls Can Tell (2001), Kill the Moonlight (2003) and Gimme Fiction (2005) elevated the Austin, Texas quartet to their current level of respect and prominence, they released an oft forgotten debut full-length, Telephono, and a tidy follow-up EP called Soft Effects. Merge has packaged the two together for re-release, using the original artwork and avoiding superfluous liner notes bloated with hindsight praise and trivia. Both have been out of print for years, and copies of Telephono have gone for three-figure bids on eBay.

Luckily, most of the hip kids that have gravitated to Spoon over the past four years don’t even remember when Matador Records released the band’s debut in 1996, much less recall it was widely regarded at the time as little more than the latest in a long line of Pixies ripoffs. Listening to Telephono 10 years later, it’s obvious that much of it was just that. In fact, when the cloud of noise kicked up at the beginning of “Don’t Buy the Realistic” dissipates, and everything goes quiet, you can almost hear “I was talking to Peachy Peach about a kissy-kiss.” Spoon’s first stab at a full-length isn’t bad, but in light of the brilliance of their last three releases, not bad sounds kind of thin. In 1996, Spoon was probably the best band vying for the Pixies’ crown, but now they are one of the best bands in the world.

Still, Telephono is an interesting historical document gauging Spoon’s development. You can hear the beginnings of what was to come on later records in “Plastic Mylar” and “Towner,” but only with the help of hindsight. Singer, guitarist and songwriter Britt Daniel’s punk sensibilities still overpowered a latent tendency to infuse disjointed, noisy art-rock with a soulful streak. “Nefarious” and “The Government Darling” prove Daniel’s ability to craft mammoth, long-lasting hooks was already developing nicely, but “Dismember” and “Idiot Driver” sound like good ideas rather than fully formed songs. And often tracks that start with great promise, like “Towner,” break down as Daniel slides into a vocal delivery comparable to a ranting drunk.

The Soft Effects EP captures Spoon moving into more linear, melodic modes of songwriting. It is the perfect bridge between Telephono and A Series of Sneaks. The band’s aggressive execution and the raw production are evidence that Spoon wasn’t going soft, as the title might suggest, but Daniel employs more subtlety in his vocals, and on “Waiting for the Kid to Come Out” and “Loss Leaders” you even hear a bit of the soul influence he cultivated more on later recordings.

It’s probably not a stretch to assume fans of Spoon’s music, especially its most recent recordings, might like White Whale, a band featuring the Get Up Kids’ Rob Pope, Matt Suggs (formerly of Butterglory) and members of Suggs’ last backing band Thee Higher Burning Fire. Suggs’ smoky, suave vocals sometimes recall Britt Daniel, and like Spoon, White Whale’s take on pop music is expansive and dramatic with a distinct sonic atmosphere created in each song. Suggs still draws heavily on the Kinks’ 1970s catalog for inspiration, but “Nine Good Fingers” and “The Admiral” adopt a more aggressive rock approach than was customary in most of his solo work. During its grandest, most ambitious moments, White Whale wouldn’t sound out of place next to classic rock luminaries like Supertramp, Pink Floyd and 1970s Elton John.

Traditional folk music makes up the foundation on which many of WWI's songs are built, most obviously “We’re Just Temporary Ma’am” and “O’ William, O’ Sarah,” and “The Admiral” sounds like a sea chantey infused with the vigor and instrumentation of a modern rock band. Still, Suggs and company manage to make something interesting and vital out of well-worn raw material.