The making of Spoon’s Girls Can Tell
By Corey Dubrowa
Here’s what it nearly was:
An album called French Lessons, a title enthusiastically endorsed by Merge Records’ Laura Ballance (whose label championed and ultimately released it under a different name). Another record with an alternate mix, additional tracks and entirely different running order. Or: lucky to be released at all, given everything Spoon had endured via its one album issued on a major label (1998’s A Series Of Sneaks on Elektra), only to be almost immediately, unceremoniously dropped. (More on that story later.)
What it is not: the band’s best-selling record (that would instead be 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which debuted at number 10 on the Billboard 200, and at last count was hovering somewhere near the 400,000-copies-sold zone). Or even Spoon’s most critically revered record (according to Metacritic, that plaudit belongs to spare and slinky 2002 album Kill The Moonlight, which clocked in with 88 points of a possible 100 for a band the site would later declare “the most consistently great” of the last decade).
So, in the final analysis: What exactly is Spoon’s 2001 gem Girls Can Tell? On this point, a whole chorus of voices finds much upon which to agree.
“I remember people coming to our shows for the first time in six years of being a band,” says Jim Eno, Spoon’s drummer, sometimes recording engineer and the only other band member besides frontman Britt Daniel to appear on every one of its albums. “Crowds started slowly getting bigger, and they had an energy and excitement we hadn’t seen before. We played in front of about 10 times more people than any show we’d had in NYC to that point. It felt like a victory.”
“There are two things I wanted to accomplish with Britt on this album,” says Girls co-producer Mike McCarthy, who would go on to help the band record its next three albums—and whose debut appearance here helped shape the stripped-down “less is more” sound that became Spoon’s stock in trade. “I thought Britt was a star poet, a voice for a generation. And he has the most awesome, uniquely original and instantly identifiable voice. What’s special about him is the sound of that voice and what he’s saying. We also had an unwritten law back then: Every part had to be critical to making the song happen. If it wasn’t, it was gone. You can get more creative because there’s space in the recording.”
“I have a really distinct memory of listening for the first time to (leadoff track) ‘Everything Hits At Once,’” says Eleanor Friedberger, the ex-Fiery Furnaces singer and Daniel’s on-again/off-again girlfriend throughout the period surrounding Girls Can Tell. “It’s so radically different than anything he’d done before. Like he’d totally embraced Fleetwood Mac. I remember Britt listening to Tusk over and over again, and when I heard that, it was like, ‘OK, it has sunk in completely—it’s working.’”
“It’s the record where the band becomes interested in the discrete units of sound that together comprise a pop song,” says critic Camden Joy, whose 2000 Village Voice essay, “Total Systems Failure,” provided an early clarion call trumpeting the band’s (to that point mostly unheard) greatness. “There’s a willingness to fuck with conventional recording techniques; the certainty of simplicity. They were a clenched-fist band, but here, the hand is opening, and they only became more this way.”
And finally, a word from its creator. “My whole kick around Girls Can Tell was classic songwriting and that the song is what comes first,” says Daniel. “It was less about gimmickry or studio trickery, which I felt Sneaks had plenty of. I was listening to a lot of oldies radio, and I had this cassette of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!! in my car. I really got into it and started asking, ‘Where did this come from—it kind of sounds like the Supremes.’ I started listening to that and Motown more, and it all led back from there. You can take this (base) and add some punk to it, you know? I was getting genuinely interested in the Kinks, in a classic era of songwriting. And what I was doing before that certainly wasn’t working.”
Lean, but luxe. Desperate, but deliberate. Stylish, but streamlined. Girls Can Tell remains the band’s sentimental favorite, a record born of desperation that nevertheless created the sonic template that would define its sound, and to which the group (whatever its configuration would later become) would hew from that point forward. It is the record that made Spoon Spoon. And a validation of the singular, stubborn talent of singer/songwriter Daniel—a sign from the universe that the sound and vision he had been carrying around in his head had an audience, one that would only grow in proportion and passion in the years that followed. Girls Can Tell is the sound of Spoon stripped to its most elemental, essential chassis—which in turn created an identity ensuring that it would stop being compared to the Pixies and Wire, and would instead become known as the next decade’s most consistently great recording act.
“And now that song’s been sung/It’s just the cost of what’s been done/The cost of taking a walk with you” —“Take A Walk”
For a brief moment—four months, to be exact—Spoon was signed to a major label and made a terrific, underheard album called A Series Of Sneaks that came out in May 1998 and then promptly sank without a trace.
Suddenly, Spoon wasn’t on Elektra anymore. Spoon wasn’t on any label anymore.