Tony Stamp reacts to the latest record in Spoon's thirty-year rock career, the debut album by Manurewa rapper Deadforest, and a country-adjacent collection from Nashville's Erin Rae.
Lucifer on the Sofa by Spoon
Reports of rock n roll’s death have been greatly exaggerated, but it has taken a bit of a beating. Like most types of music, it’s been fractured across a plethora of sub-genres, from punk to folk, but meat n potatoes Rock, the kind with roots back to the likes of Chuck Berry, seems to have become harder to execute without sounding a bit naff.
Spoon has been around for over thirty years now, and it’s notable how they never really re-invented the wheel, just kept doing the basics as well as possible, and became one of the most consistent acts in the world.
They aren’t the wildest rock band. You could even call them middle of the road. But frontman Britt Daniel writes fantastic, straightforward tunes, and has a voice custom made for belting them out.
Likewise, he and guitar player Alex Fischel have a knack for guitar hooks that are familiar but not cliched, as heard on the track ‘The Devil and Mister Jones’, which marks the first mention of Satan on this album.
There’s nothing demonic going on here though, Spoon is a thoroughly amiable group. The main effect this album had on me was rediscovering the simple pleasure of guitars with different tones stacked on top of each other.
It opens with ‘Held’, a cover of an old tune by Smog. Musically it’s pretty faithful, but strips away all the original’s weirdness, uncovering a straight-ahead rock tune. It’s hard to imagine Britt Daniel writing the lyric ‘I let myself be held like a big old baby’, but he invests it with his usual cool, a demeanour he still easily sports at the age of fifty. There’s no hint of desperation about him, maybe because while they’re successful, Spoon never became massively famous.
Lucifer on the Sofa was produced by the band in collaboration with three other producers, but it never sounds overstuffed or complicated.
They also brought in songwriter-about-town Jack Antonoff, famous for working with Lorde and Taylor Swift, to co-write the single ‘Wild’. As someone slightly suspicious of Antonoff’s supposed golden touch, I have to admit it's the best song on the album.
There’s something about the way Britt Daniel sits between a note and a yell in its hook that hits a sweet spot for me. Likewise, Spoon use pianos really well, like when a big slab of them hits in the second chorus.
On the romantic ‘My Babe’, which features lyrics about hearts beating in time and Daniel beating his chest, the piano subs in for guitar and provides a lovely lead melody.
After Spoon’s first album back in the nineties drew comparisons to Pavement and The Pixies, they took stock and made a conscious effort to sound less like an indie rock band, and inject elements of other genres like soul. The resulting sound, controlled and considered, has been successful on every album since.
The album's title track rolls around at its finish, telling a story of Britt Daniel wandering Texas, searching for something. The Lucifer of the title is his own apathy. It’s yearning but relaxed, tasteful but energetic, and a bit experimental. A good summation of Spoon’s place in the world of rock n’ roll.
Plastic by Deadforest
There are many pathways into the music business, but on a practical level, you need to start somewhere. Affluent parents can be the entry point, or maybe a well-equipped school or church. It’s much less common to hear artists who have genuinely had to struggle to be heard, and their music is more likely to contain the kind of working-class sentiments that can make some listeners uncomfortable.
The debut from Manurewa rapper Deadforest has been on high rotation in my ears, not just because it’s so well-written and produced, but because it unapologetically gives a voice to those who don’t always get a place in the spotlight.
The name came about as a play on words - ‘dead for rest’. It’s a reference to not getting enough sleep, and speaks to where he’s coming from - always striving to get ahead.
He told the Australian website Tone Deaf, “Growing up in a small family with no stability you miss out on a lot of ‘XP’ that you can’t get back later in life but that’s exactly what drives me.”
XP is a gaming term meaning ‘experience points’. Like a lot of the best hip hop, Plastic weaves in all sorts of metaphors to make its point.
It can also be straightforward, like the interlude ‘75’, which has Deadforest reminiscing about being a kid in Manurewa, while a Pacific Island church choir sings in the background.
It’s a moment of peace in an album that, to me, is all about survival. There are references to council housing, growing up without a silver spoon, and doing what’s necessary to make ends meet.
Deadforest actually sums up the ethos of this music in the track ‘Loud and Clear’, saying he’s "putting pain into Pro Tools".
Pro Tools is a type of music software, and the person running it here is Dera Meelan, best known as a regular producer for Church & AP, both of whom show up on this album. He and Deadforest have been dabbling in different genres these last few years, like drum n bass, and techno on the track ‘Fire Sale’, which is approaching seven million streams on Spotify.
As Deadforest says, “It was such a crazy idea that some kids from Clendon were able to do something like that, all from Deras bedroom.”
The production on Plastic is another step up for Meelan, with hints of UK grime and close attention to detail, like throwing in a boxing-ring bell on the track ‘Marmalade’.
On the title track, he expertly flips a soul sample, creating a dissonance between the hook and the verse, and leaving room for Deadforest to drop his most confident bars.
It evokes RZA ‘s production for Wu-Tang Clan: full of musical hooks as well as lyrical ones. It’s also packed with working-class references like a sister on a weekend shift, and a brother trying to raise his kids, and ends with hyper-local lines about going to the bakery, and the dairy.
The key line is ‘What you know about this?’. I get the feeling Deadforest is speaking directly to the listener there, not asking for sympathy, just acknowledgement. This album is angry, but it’s not bitter. It’s full of vocal dexterity, layers of meaning and expert production, and to me sounds really accomplished, whether it came from Clendon, or anywhere in the world.
Lighten Up by Erin Rae
When I was young, even I prided myself on being musically open-minded, there was one genre I proudly rejected. But in the years since then, country music has undergone a reinvention.
Lil Nas X merged it with rap, masked singer Orville Peck added indie cool, and both those artists tackled queer themes. Those are just two recent examples. The genre as a whole has progressed considerably since the AM country station I was forced to listen to at a previous day job.
Erin Rae is a Nashville artist whose music has plenty of musical cross-pollination, but its town of origin is clearly audible, in her vocal twang and its pedal steel guitars - these songs are imbued with a country spirit.
Nylon magazine proclaimed Erin Rae part of the “new wave of feminist country musicians” after her second album Putting on Airs, and a track like ‘Modern Woman’ puts that front and centre.
Its lyrics and video make it her point clear: the erosion of gender norms mean that white, femme-presenting women like her aren’t necessarily the norm anymore. As well as that she said it challenges "the idea that being loud and outspoken are valuable traits or signs of strength" in a woman.
These are complex and valuable ideas to put into a song, but the album has its share of simpler subject matter too, like the breakup ballad ‘Gonna be Strange’. I like the slightly off-kilter line "I’m gonna be strange without you". It’s understated, but that just makes it more heartbreaking.
On this album, Erin Rae worked with collaborators of Weyes Blood and Father John Misty, and those hipster folk touches are present, as well as a lot of production that emulates sixties pop.
Her voice is the real standout, with a bit of Karen Carpenter and a lot of emotion, and songwriting which consistently delivers singalong choruses.
Erin Rae said Lighten Up is about “blossoming, opening up, and living a little more in the present moment.”
She also calls it “country adjacent”, which works for me. Listening to its songs, which split the difference between tear-jerking and buoyant, I forgot about genres altogether.