Silkworm: Italian Platinum

Italian Platinum
Touch and Go

It’s sad when a band’s seventh album is the one that’s supposed to gain them widespread exposure in the underground but doesn’t. That was the case with Lifestyle, Silkworm’s acclaimed 2000 outing. Arguably the best indie rock album of that year, it still wasn’t enough to turn the 13-year-old band into our new answer for Pavement, a band with whom they’ve toured and been compared.

Some old-school listeners had already fallen in and out of love with Silkworm, accomplishing the latter when Joel Phelps, one of the band’s three democratic co-songwriters, departed in the mid-’90s to pursue a solo career (and subsequently hasn’t been heard from in recent years). Since then, it’s been up to the twin songwriting abilities of guitarist Andy Cohen and bassist Tim Midgett, with powerhouse drummer Michael Dahlquist and longtime producer Steve Albini there to make it all sound great. More albums followed — ’96’s Firewater (Matador), ’97’s Developer (Matador), ’98’s Blueblood (Touch & Go), and then Lifestyle (Touch & Go).

Two years later after its release, Lifestyle still stands as a towering, woefully overlooked accomplishment of smart guitar rock. Songs like Midgett’s hulking opener “Contempt” (inspired by the classic Jean Luc Godard film) and Cohen’s plaintive ballads (“Roots” and “The Bones”) are tough yet sensitive, brutish yet sly. Nearly everything’s a gem, from “Slave Wages”, “Treat the New Guy Right”, and “Yr Web” to “That’s Entertainment”, “Raging Bull”, and “Across the Outline”. There is even a sincere cover of “Ooh La La”, the Faces standard that most kids today only recognize from the end of the film Rushmore.

To anyone who had the luck of hearing Lifestyle, that album’s shadow looms long over this year’s Italian Platinum. Silkworm has some mighty big shoes to fill, albeit of the guys’ own design. So they’ve recruited two of the better talents in Chicago (where the members of Silkworm all live, their first time in the same city since ’98). Kelly Hogan, a bittersweet alt-country singer-songwriter on the city’s beloved Bloodshot label (and also a member of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts), contributes backing vocals — credited as “the female vocals you can hear”. Meanwhile, there’s piano and keyboard tickling by Matt Kadane, guitarist and songwriter for cult favorites Bedhead and their successors, the New Year. It may be minimal help, granted, but it makes a difference where it counts.

Platinum starts solid with “(I Hope U) Don’t Survive”, a raging Midgett-penned anthem that serves precisely the same purpose as “Contempt” did the last time around. Cohen’s guitar work is huge and bewildering, setting an immediate precedent for comparisons to legends like Neil Young and Television’s Tom Verlaine. It’s not even a whole four minutes, but there’s plenty of power packed into that space. Midgett’s rumbling bass and Dahlquist’s fantastic drumming knock nicely against that guitar power and Hogan’s echoing of the weirdly paranoid chorus, “And I love you means / ‘I hope you don’t survive the night'”. The hand of producers Albini and Heather Whinna (who also handled Lifestyle) is already evident, highlighting so much strength within the band that you wonder why everyone doesn’t record like Albini.

“The Third” is a two-minute jaunt of hotwire urgency from Cohen, lumbering to a bruising finish far too soon, like a musical equivalent to premature ejaculation (we need more!). Cloudy subject matter obscures the lyrics, and since no lyric sheet is included with the album, it’s only expected that we’ll go fishing on the band web site to glean them. “The Old You” is another Cohen, slowing things down so that you can actually hear what he’s saying. The opening line, “Did you ever have a friend / Who did much better than you had planned?”, seems cheesy, but it soon unfolds as another affecting blue-collar portrait, full of mountainous terrain and scattered geographic references (Cohen trademarks both). At chorus time, he asks, “Is it you?” and then declares, “You were world-proof”, another strange line that strikes a chord for whatever reason.

Midgett’s brilliant “Is She a Sign” clocks in at an infuriating 2:28 minutes, flushed with Kadane piano and again, the most delightfully deliberate drumming Dahlquist can muster. Midgett sounds flustered and weary, singing mysterious lines about scoundrels promising reform and maybe voyeurism too. The defining verse is as follows: “Have you ever stopped talking for a while / Kept a running monologue up in your head / It means you’re dead / Dead to everybody else / It means you’re trying to justify / just breaking a rule somehow”. Putting it to paper just doesn’t do it justice, honestly.

“The Brain” is made distinct by a rudimentary organ line and Hogan’s simple harmonizing, though still only three minutes long. “Bourbon Beard”, meanwhile, sounds like drummer Dahlquist is getting a chance to sing a bit, soulful and froggy. Still, it’s mostly Midgett’s crackling voice, intoning like it’s a Pavement cover, only with more piano and that lumbering guitar style. It’s a drinking song that a father and son could really go to town with, an account of alcoholism that’s not manipulative, yet quite heartbreaking. There are quotable lines all over: “I don’t even like the taste of my bourbon beard / But I’d rather feel sleazy than desperate and crazed”, “My bourbon beard / holds my head up for a while / Helps me feel like I’m not shot”, “They say that we’re just a couple of drunks / whose pants are way too tight”, and “Nothing but money in my jeans / I’m still sorta young and I’m free and white . . . The kids, well, I’m still one of them”. And let’s not even discuss that genius fire spot of guitar.

Cohen’s “LR72” is slow-ish, built on his halting noodling and the usually journeyman narrative. At four minutes and with themes that could have come from the less preachy sections of the Bible, it sets out on an odd expanse, like the Mountain Goats gone impossibly rock. Midgett’s snarling “White Lightning” aims to stave off the boredom that tends to set in three-quarters through an album, enlisting a choppy clavinet solo (no, seriously) from Kadane and some Hogan vocals. Then Cohen’s “Dirty Air” sets off with what could be Creedence hooks, feeling lighter and less upset than usual Silkworm. Again, there’s a Pavement feel, though less smirking and sloppy, but it’s something that shows up only as much as nods to Hüsker Dü and Mission of Burma.

Surprisingly, Kelly Hogan sings lead on “Young”, with a frazzled old-country style that fits the classically lovelorn lyrics: “Everybody talks so much / You don’t ever say a thing / But I like to hear the sound of your voice / I rarely find it irritating”. Sounds cliché, right? Yeah, but coming out of Hogan, it’s downright haunting. She goes on, “If the cosmos has a plan / I hope it tells you what you want to hear” and then “I’ve been working nine to five / Give or take an hour maybe two / Leaves eight hours every night / to do what I want to do”. Again, it’s the working class vibe that offsets any cheesiness.

“Moving” is sung tenderly by Cohen, sparse and nimble like the band’s classic single, “Couldn’t You Wait?” It’s a nice, quiet break from the emotional brunt of much of Italian Platinum, all of which kicks back in for the final two songs, both Midgett’s. “The Ram” is slow but angry, whereas the closing “A Cockfight of Feeling” is not so slow but twice as angry. It features strong lyrics, opening with “Only a fool gives up sex for lent” and then a chorus of “Softly now / softly now / Try it, you won’t die”. Other lines of note include, “But you spoke a language that I knew too / Innate understanding because I was a fool / We all learn to listen after years at school” and “The worst work on Earth is on the turkey farm / When those birds get excited / sound the alarm”. Kadane’s organ paints madly outside the lines, fitting as Silkworm crashes Platinum to a halt.

In the end, Italian Platinum isn’t as thoroughly pitch-perfect as Lifestyle, but the albums share similar peaks. And besides, Platinum still emerges as one of 2002’s great rock albums, even if the year’s only half over. Nobody does it like Silkworm, friends, and the sooner you come around, the better.