Last year’s four-disc anthology of ‘80s college rock, Left of the Dial, was a fabulous collection, culling some of the finest music from 82 bands from that decade, but for all its attention to detail, providing listeners glimpses of popular bands in their formative years as well as unearthing obscure gems, For Against were a glaring omission. Of course, when you’re a young band from Nebraska playing first-rate dream pop before it was even called dream pop, being ignored is inevitable; after all, nobody cares what a bunch of rural hayseeds have to say. Listen to that box set, and then to a For Against album, and you’ll hear how brilliantly the trio brings in various styles into their own compositions, much like the melting pot of the West: you hear early R.E.M., the dark tones of The Cure, the gentle pop strains of the Paisley Underground, the melodic basslines of Gang of Four, the raw emotion of Husker Du and Joy Division, and even touches of the ethereal melodies of the Cocteau Twins. Along with that, alienation is always on the minds of anyone living on the Great Plains, and it’s a feeling that pervades For Against’s music, making it gorgeous, stark, and seething at the same time.
Had their 1988 album December been originally released on an uber-hip record label, it would have been universally hailed as a brilliant piece of work, but instead, it was put out by the obscure Independent Project Records, destined to be the kind of buried gem that would astound first-time listeners, who would be compelled to exclaim, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about these guys?!” When the Lincoln trio decided to reunite a few years ago, their new label, Minneapolis’s Words on Music, thought it would be a good idea to give the band’s two early albums the reissue treatment, and while the re-release of the 1987 debut Echelons was more than welcome (it had never appeared in CD form), it’s the newly remastered version of their masterful follow-up that the few fans of the band have long been waiting for.
At a very compact 36 minutes, December doesn’t waste any time, and hits all the right notes. Unlike Echelons, whose more ambitious tracks were offset by a handful of songs that sounded more tentative, December is a stunning leap, the band exuding a confidence that makes them sound like world beaters, not college rock unknowns. The album’s title is especially fitting, as a decidedly chilly feeling runs through the music, Harry Dingman’s guitars slashing through the air like a biting prairie gust in the winter, Greg Hill’s cymbals crashing like ice shards, and the vocals by Jeffrey Runnings sounding as if they were recorded in a frigid echo chamber. It’s a breathtaking evocation of mood, rivaling that of both the Chameleons and early R.E.M..
Throughout the album, Runnings and Dingman engage in a give-and-take between vocals and guitar, each serving as the perfect foil for the other. “Sabres” has Runnings crooning icily in his boyish voice, “I’m not wishing anymore/ I’m keeping you,” as Dingman’s mellifluous notes cascade around the bass and drums. The duo engage in a fiercely bitter exchange on the paranoid “The Last Laugh”, while on another song, Runnings sings of being “Stranded in Greenland”, but you get the feeling he’s really talking about his actual home (“Surrounded by the cold, nothing more/ There’s no one else around, not for miles”), Dingman’s understated, chiming notes punctuating each word.
Elsewhere, “Svengali” takes the Rickenbacker-driven sounds of early R.E.M., and injects a wickedly menacing tone, thanks to Runnings’ deceptively forceful vocal delivery, while the tone is much more melancholy on the lovely “They Said” (They said you could be so much more than you are/ The problem is I don’t care anymore”). The band go for more of a Joy Division meets Echo & the Bunnymen feel on both “The Effect” and the title track, attempting a darker, more atmospheric feel, to great effect, and the impassioned “Clandestine High Holy” closes the album on a very high note, highlighted by Dingman’s sinewy guitar work.
With dozens of bands trying to plumb the back catalogs of 1980s post punk, few, if any, of them have been able to match the simple, stark majesty that December exudes. Nearly two decades later, the album sounds remarkably fresh, a razor-sharp, pristinely produced record that bleeds with more eloquent emotion than today’s imitators. It may have been ignored 17 years ago, but thanks to this stupendous reissue, there are no more excuses. Bloc Party may have mastered imitating the style, but For Against were doing it just as well (perhaps even better) when that band were a bunch of young pups.