[24 July 2013]
It can seem at times like North Carolina’s Spider Bags were a band scientifically designed to achieve cult status. Sure, there’s the name that’s comes from in-joke on a Wire street drug but there’s so much more. For example, their production style isn’t just scuzzy nearly to point of aggression; it’s also incredibly immediate, conveying a spontaneity and intimacy rarely seen since the Shrimper-era Mountain Goats. On top of that, their founding memberand songwriter Dan McGee cut his teeth in the similarly cultish group, the DC Snipers. But most importantly, in an era where most bands record to be able to tour, the Bags have curated an air of mystique by eschewing the treadmill that is the indie rock touring circuit and instead have chosen to pump out a string of 7” singles in-between their three full-length albums. In an era of total information and access, the Spider Bags are the rare band that people have to work to see or hear.
Fortunately for those who wish to see the band’s profile rise (and perhaps frustratingly for those who spent hours tracking down small-batch vinyl), Churchkey Records has gathered the last five years’ worth of the group’s singles for this release. The songs here were recorded starting after their first album, 2007’s stunning A Celebration Of Hunger and feature McGee and fellow guitarist Gregg Levy, joined by a rotating cast of other musicians that was almost never the same from song to song. Listening to the album, it’s obvious just how vibrant and vital a band the Spider Bags are, whoever the players are. The songs here manage to be at once straightforward and complex, their lyrics a mixture innocence and debauchery. The music ends up taking on the feeling of thoughts bubbling up through a dark, drunken unconscious and presented in exactly that manner. Conceived as standalone songs rather than as pieces of an album, the music here shows just how little time the Bags need to make an impact.
The first thing to notice about the material here is that it tends to be a little dirtier than what’s on the group’s albums. The guitars sound cheap and angry, with at least some fuzz managing to peek its way into even the softer songs. That abrasiveness is part of the songs’ unhinged charm, filtered through equal parts Paul Westerberg and Hank Williams after more than a few rounds at the bar. One of the angriest songs in a catalog that wasn’t all too well-adjusted to begin with, “Papa Was A Shithead” is the epitome of the first half of that equation, bristling with the same slurred vitriol and generational resentment of the Stink EP. “I Wish That I Never Had Fed You”, meanwhile, showcases the band’s soft spot for blubbery, done-me-wrong country songs. Besides starting off with some purty pedal steel, the song’s country bona fides are forever cemented by one of the genre’s all-time great kiss offs when McGee tells his women that “there’s a tell on your face / That betrays your cheatin’ mind / When your eyes are open, I know you’re lying.”
The diversity of song styles on Singles is fitting, as these songs contain elements of the Spider Bags’ sound that they’ve scattered across their more individually cohesive albums. Some of the territory covered is unsurprising but excellent, for example the rockabilly freakout “Teenage Eyes” or the psychedelic onslaught “Dog In The Snow”. More often than not, however, there’s something tucked into these songs that pushes them over the top from damn good to great. In “Take It Easy Tonite”, for example, just as the band should be putting the bow on another fine rocker, they drop in an-out-of-nowhere free jazz sax solo from Ben Riseling, then an echoplex. Or take “Shaunda (What’s My Sign)”, which starts as another crunchy country lament (this time with Gregg Levy singing) before blossoming into some kind lush, angry ‘80s slow-burning guitar jam session that threatens flies apart at the seams. Eventually the band wrestles things back under control for Levy to end with a few more seconds of softly strummed lament, as if to remind us of the emotional ground that’s just been covered.
What makes Dan McGee’s simultaneous love for and deconstruction of these genres he dabbles in so endearing is his gleefully un-self-serious approach. On “Eileen” he longs for a woman so much that he goes to her house and puts on her clothes, noting “I always liked the way they fit you / It makes us feel so close”. Eventually someone comes to the door and he ends up desperately fleeing, dressed in woman’s clothes. It would all sound so creepy if it weren’t for McGee undercutting himself at every turn, from the flat “la-la la-la la-la la”s to the sad mumbled confession, “I had nowhere else to go”. It’s these kind of details – the astrology references, the songs about dogs, etc. - laced with a drinker’s honesty that makes McGee the perfect antidote for an irony-soaked and unfulfilling culture. McGee is able to play his feelings straight and for a laugh but it always comes back towards basic human desires – escape, anger and, above all, the need to connect with another person in this life.
It would be hard for most bands to follow-up a debut as impressive as A Celebration Of Hunger, which remains the group’s one essential album. But dammit if the Spider Bags haven’t managed to scrape by for over half-decade since then with nary a bum release. Most collections like Singles feel incomplete or hodgepodge. Fortunately, “hodgepodge” is an aesthetic that the Bags revel in and this record feels like an organic part of the group’s discography, sucking up songs that would have been otherwise known mostly to vinyl fetishists. It’s not quite up to the level of a Singles Going Steady but the fact that the comparison isn’t blasphemous shows at just how high a level this band is operating. Creative hitting streaks this one are rare and wonderful things, enjoy it while you can.