Too Edgy For Pop, Too Sly For Punk?
This expanded re-issue of the band’s second full-length opens more space in its compressed production. Comparisons to Pavement fade. The Archers’ gnarled guitars atop a thicket of bass and a churn of drums always reminded me of Mission of Burma. Vee Vee signals a shift towards the sonic exactitude and undergrad smarts of the latter band. Producer Bob Weston, who had played bass in the Volcano Suns with the drummer of MoB, later worked with Steve Albini and Shellac, and eventually the reformed Burma. Weston’s drier, unfussy direction underlies the Archers’ 1995 album.
“Step Into the Light” resembles that Boston ensemble, with a more hushed entrance as the record opens. It swells and hovers as if somewhat alien. What follows is one of the best songs from the decade. “Harnessed in Slums,” for a band from a basketball-obsessed campus, tells the tale of those harnessed wanting to break free. It’s a memorable subject for a three-minute tune, and its rousing chorus and insistent tempos celebrate as they comment upon the cheerleading, ra-ra rants of such schools as their own University of North Carolina.
While the lo-fi tag hung around this Chapel Hill quartet, Eric Bachmann’s strangled vocals owe as much to punk as the more classic rock traditions mined by Pavement, and the results on this follow-up to Icky Mettle foreshadow the band’s attempt to leave behind their snarlier, harder edge for experimental textures, as on the start of “Fabricoh.” This hisses and crackles like the analog and vinyl formats technology was discarding, the lo-fi aesthetic giving way to shiny discs and ordered sound files. It also sounds – given that song’s telling title – as if the Archers fought off compromise which had lured their peers (Sebadoh?) and predecessors into pop after postpunk. This combination of anger and melody shows the band’s ability to appeal to what was still labelled as a “college rock” crowd. A dozen years after R.E.M.’s rise, adventurous listeners sought not the increasingly cheery direction of the Athens band, so much as an edgier (by then) Southern college town rooted in slamming menace as well as pop-directed swagger.
Bachmann’s vocals confront the listener, freed from the band’s backing as well as fettered to it. Music lurches in. Guitars wander up and down the scale, anchored by an assertive rhythm section. This heavy, formidable, and unsmiling approach demands attention from the listener. The band’s records never were easy listening. Yet, this progressed from the raw, shredded, full-throat shrieks of the often fearsome Icky Mettle through the Vs. The Greatest of All Time EP into more eclectic, precise music. The Archers knew to keep songs brief, as they distilled potent bile into a few minutes. While some of these songs do not stand out as dramatically as those on the first release, they remain consistent and intelligent. “Underachievers Academy and Fight Song” recalls in its title a song by Mission of Burma. It awkwardly hops along with a whistling melody in a ramshackle mood, but I like it better than its grating inspiration, “Academy Fight Song.” It heaps a wobbly skiffle tune on top of a folkish delivery. It sounds like its title. It’s also one of those CD surprise songs that stops after a few minutes, only to burst into a few seconds of final sound three minutes late after as much silence. That college prank wears thin.
Superchunk, the band’s Tar Heel neighbors, was mining similar terrain early in its long career, so the second bonus track out of many unreleased and new ones on this expanded version recalls that other quartet’s feistier side, with a pop-punk sheen meets post-punk thud. “Telepathic Traffic” opens with a long stretch of instrumental unease. Then Bachmann erupts: “There’s no breath, there’s no ventilation.” The band, later in the ‘90s, would leave a thrashing volume behind for a no less sullen but keyboard-driven, experimental or electronic soundscapes. Hints of this evolution beyond punkish rock appear in this song’s side-winding, slippery, meandering progression.
Bachmann and Eric Johnson’s loud guitars, Matt Gentling’s amplified bass and Mark Price’s drums may have been played as loud as Zep but their melodies, like those of many Southern college rockers, reminded audiences of The Who or British rock from the late ‘60s. The Archers sidle up to pop, but shrink back into angry tirades enriched by post-punk, approaching MoB’s art-rock even more than on their debut. This mix of precision and demolition typifies the sprawling approach of such B-side forays as the anti-Christmas “Don’t Believe the Good News”, and shows that, far from an album, the band sustained innovation. Its woozy, morning-after or after-midnight warble resembles a Salvation Army band’s hangover.
The re-issue features on a second disc full of demo tapes, some labelled “boombox”, and out-of-print singles from the Alias and Esther record labels. These prove rewarding, surprisingly, for more variety than the bonus tracks on Icky, which blurred their harsher, unrelenting attitude. Some sound almost unrecognizable, as in “Don’t Believe”, with its lazy bottleneck guitar and metronomic backing, compared to even the one-off B-side! Other B-sides echo ‘60s film soundtracks (“Mark Price, P.I.”) or cover (?) John Coltrane (he’s credited even if “Equinox” proves a previously unreleased if underwhelming take on a trucker’s shaggy-dog ghost story), as well as more of their trademarked loud-soft put-downs of romantic foils (“Bacteria”). The boombox tracks are as Spartan as you might suppose, guitar or drum machine in a dorm, perhaps? The songs are barely there, but you can hear Bachmann building them up, as if he woke from a dream to record them. This ambiance heightens the sense of the band’s college-town roots, and shows their talent at constructing such ambitious and aggressive songs, with penetrating lyrics, out of such humble beginnings. “Don’t have words for this part yet”, Bachmann comments over one guitar section.
Archers of Loaf, in its earlier recorded stages, may best be taken in small doses, for they can pummel your eardrums with a steady roar, angry vocals, and tragicomic lyrics, but for rousing, grumbling tunes, this album offers a more accessible entry. The band’s maturity comes on this more diverse, if more modest, second record. The bonus tracks may appeal “for fans only”, but they may find these obscurities and rarities entertaining, as well as the original record, long out of print on the defunct Alias label. Not as soft a record as the third, the overlooked All the Nation’s Airports, or the sad, keyboard based final CD White Trash Heroes, this sophomore record proves the most accessible Archers album for its scope and range. Remastered by Weston as fuzzy or sharp, this generous re-release (the second in a series by Merge Records, founded by Superchunk) should win Vee Vee another devoted following.
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