[7 August 2012]
One fascinating thing about dubstep is how quickly it’s unified legions of fans under one flag. Faced with a lack of radio-play-ready proper guitar solos, kids promptly went elsewhere, doing what they do best: making things cool because they are young and doing drugs. The actual merits of dubstep are for another discussion entirely, because this is about the Spider Bags new album, Shake My Head, and how a band like Spider Bags became one of the last, best, invisible bands.
There are a thousand ways for a band to get discovered today, you know them all: magazines, websites, a great YouTube video, some weird viral scheme. There are people who look through these sources all day, trying to find some new sound that they can share with others (including this reviewer). The Spider Bags have, essentially, fallen through all of these cracks, multiple times. The Washington Post once started an interview with Patrick Stickles of Titus Androncius commiserating talking about how unknown Spider Bags are. This failed to make them known. As far as I can tell, their anonymity is based on a couple factors, one of them being geography: Bands from Chapel Hill don’t get as much play these days as they did in the 90’s. But another is that, like Titus Andronicus, Spider Bags don’t quite fit into current retro mindset. There’s a party going on, but it doesn’t take long to see the stresses underneath.
“Keys to the City”, which opens the album, is filled with ricocheting guitars and hooks that take you to the back of an American Legion hall that should be closed down but it’s not, where there’s a cold cooler full of beer and the people are getting drunk and know your name. Like a lot of the songs on Shake My Head, it’s not just frontman Dan McGee hollering out the chorus but a whole bunch of people. Every Spider Bag shows a whole lotta love on Shake, for each other and for you too, probably. But McGee sneaks in a couple ominous lines right at the end; sneeze and you miss them: “Can’t lock yourself outta prison, can’t learn your ass in college” and some mumbling that sounds like a diss of the Lower East Side. Manhattanites aside, there’s something troubling about ending this this type of Whiskey River rocker on such a note of predestined paranoia. It’s a feeling that’ll show itself a couple other places on the record. Never overtaking, just enough to let you know that it’s 2012 and the rich seem richer and those who aren’t that are going to become more of whatever they already are, but worse.
“All my friends are leaving town, I’m the only jerk who sticks around”, McGee mutters at the opening of lead single “Friday Night”. “And it’s tough, falling out of love, baby it’s tough, tough tough!” The guitars are full of bluster and head-nodding swagger, and McGee’s tones alternate between desperation and pride. There’s no real urgency in his voice or the lyrics, which jump from sad place to place—it’s just how things happen to be right now.
People talk all over the fringes of Shake My Head, which befits an album made over three days. Problems about life may abound, but no one’s taking them too seriously as long as the music’s going. There’s a narrowing of focus on the cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” that comes at the album’s midpoint. McGee’s voice takes on a monotone, stating point blank, “You gotta live for yourself, for yourself and nobody else”. This is when it hits that even though there’s a country-rock line from the Spider Bags you could trace directly back to John Fogerty, you’ll never hear ever hear them reminisce about baseball. It’s travelling band music for an age of MP3s, where everyone around them seems a little colder, a little less interested in their neighbors.
That’s not to say listening to Shake My Head is a sorrowful affair, because it’s not. Even the mistakes on Shake are generally congenial affairs, more forgettable than offensive — was there a need for a psychedelic track in the middle of this barn-burner? No, but “Shape I Was In” ambles by harmlessly enough. It’s a raucous affair for confusing times, and Shake My Head works best when it realizes that a loud rocking party won’t cure all your troubles, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one anyway.