[6 August 2014]
While previous Spider Bags releases spread their sound far and wide, the band’s fourth full-length album draws on a more singular inspiration. With Frozen Letter, the North Carolina trio dives headfirst into the psychedelic end of the garage rock pool. The result is their most cohesive set of songs to date, with a tighter and more refined lyrical focus. This is a summer bummer party record, filled with anger and sorrow and sing-along derision.
Spider Bags aren’t afraid to lead with their best stuff, and the one/two punch of “Back With You Again in the World”, and “Japanese Vacation” is a combo that’s hard to beat. “Back With You Again in the World” is the opening track, all manic jangle and warm fuzz; there’s a familiarity to its short two and a half minutes. Bandleader Dan McGee espouses his honesty through the side of his mouth, the lie in his tone if not in his words. If there is an archetypal Spider Bag song, this might just be it. Sloppily tight and comfortable yet seemingly incomplete, it wraps up more than it concludes.
“Japanese Vacation” takes the jangle up a notch and pairs it with vivid little descriptive images that are both evocative and concrete: “Spider crawl across the wall / Doesn’t mean a thing at all”; “And in my living room / A lonely silver spoon/doesn’t move me.” The lyrics capture not ennui but, through McGee’s delivery, a more general disgust at it all. Two songs in and the tone and themes are set. Frozen Letter isn’t going to be a happy-go-lucky romp, no matter how upbeat the music.
Though the first third of the album may fly by in a heady rush, there is more to it than bad vibe garage rock stompers. There’s bad vibe slow numbers, too, like the reverb-drenched “Coffin Car”, where the prettiness of the chord progression can’t mask that same tortured morbidity that hangs like a bad acid trip over the whole affair. “I think I’m coming down,” McGee repeats, though whether a statement of fact or a vain hope is unclear. “Tired over your love, baby / Again, again, Yeah! YEAH! YEAH!” Even as you sing along, you realize he isn’t fooling anyone, or convincing himself despite his vehemence. Once again, McGee, bassist Steve Oliva and drummer Rock Forbes shamble and seduce as they fall apart.
And fall they do, again and again. Yet it’s in these most human of moments that Spider Bags reach their greatest heights. As this short album winds down, they reach their pinnacle on the transcendently chooglin’ “We Got Problems”. A hitherto unimagined blend of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Meat Puppets, the track is so familiar as to seem familial. “We Got Problems” shuffles along in a groove that feels like the band found it already playing, hitched a ride for five and a half minutes and slid out before letting it roll ever on. With label-owner Mac McCaughan of Superchunk laying down some of his best lead work in ages, and McGee at his disaffected, shrug-worthy peak—“I fear it’s true, we got problems / And there ain’t too much we can do to stop them”—Spider Bags reach a new, even more forlorn, peak.
The question now is can Spider Bags continue to improve with release after release. Frozen Letter cements their prior strengths while pointing toward new and potentially more impressive sounds. It’s been a steady climb, and McGee and company could easily rest after such a feat. Let’s hope whatever rest is short and, for inspirational purposes, bittersweet. Another two years would be two years too long for more songs from their distinctively caustic and jangly mire.