1998: Bill Clinton and the blue dress. "Y2K" is slowly shaping on everyone's lips. Celine's "My Heart Will Go On," Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life" and Madonna's "Ray of Light" are in everyone's heads. Meanwhile, a young rock band from Austin, Texas, named Spoon releases its second LP, A Series of Sneaks, on major label Elektra Records. Its lean mix of Pixies aggression and spiteful Elvis Costello nerd-pop didn't satisfy Elektra's expectations. Third Eye Blind stayed, but Spoon found itself on the label-less end of a bitter breakup.
But it's a semi-charmed life, right? Flash forward to October 2007: Songwriter Britt Daniels, longtime drummer Jim Eno and the rest of Spoon play two songs on Saturday Night Live. Those songs, "The Underdog" and "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb," are two irresistibly climactic cuts from the band's sixth album and fourth for Durham-based, Chapel Hill-born, Superchunk-run Merge Records, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
Merge landed two bands on Saturday Night Live in 2007. It probably won't be the last time a little-label-that-could like Merge does that, either: Like many of its independent contemporaries, Merge has grown up big and strong without a corporate feeding tube, able to accomplish many of the same things as its major-money peers. During the decade of the dying record store, Merge has fostered the careers of bands like Dinosaur Jr., Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields, Destroyer and The Rosebuds. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga hit No. 10 on the Billboard 200 during its first week of sales. Neon Bible, released by labelmates and SNL fellows Arcade Fire last March, hit No. 2.
Major what? While some music industry mouthpieces claim the sky is falling, labels like Merge continue to facilitate well-earned success of great artists ostensibly not good enough for giant labels. If you give the new Spoon record a spin, you'll find 10 masterfully mixed tunes of sharp, minimal and moody pop. Daniels' longing rasp pans perfectly over horn blasts of mariachi-soul, swift guitar strokes and reverbed ambiance. Maybe it sounds simultaneously like the healthy voice of independent music and the death croak of the other. Either way, as the needle drops to the B-side, the roar of talent drowns out the cries of so many chicken littles.
Spoon performs at the Carolina Theatre Sunday, April 13, with The Walkmen and White Rabbits. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are $26-$32.