Monday, February 18, 2013

Antietam: Rope-a-Dope (1994)


Sort of overwhelming to come finally around to a close listen to one of your favorite band's favorite bands. Antietam not only has a remarkably similar history to Yo La Tengo, they're pals with the band and share their taste for feedback-drenched folk rock, a cheerily distorted Neil Young. Based on my exposure, this Kentucky band shares not their peers' warmth and humor, nor their love of variety and, well, songs. But Tara Key is an extraordinary guitarist (dig her stunningly lyrical playing on "Pine") whose searing riffs elevate out toward the night sky, even as she tempers it all with her deadpan southern-Nico drawl. (She periodically shares lead vocal duties with bassist Tim Harris and drummer John Madell, who... do their best Dean Wareham.)

Ira Kaplan himself guests on the gleefully circular "Hands Down," which feels strongly informed by the sound of alternative and indie circa 1994 with its toughened fuzz-punk shtick, even if Antietam's love of the simultaneous loud-soft dynamic vastly predates most of the radio-friendly groups that were bringing it to middle America around this time (and the bands that weren't, like L7). Unfortunately, while the remainder of the record is pleasant, this is as distinctive as the songwriting really gets -- unless I'm just not hearing something buried under the quite endearing sludge. It hasn't manifested itself as anything besides background music and inevitably lives in the shadow of YLT and the Clean, a little more rote and conventional than either.

But the band is terrific. They're best heard on the longer cuts, and the moments that stretch into a kind of intense and feverish loudness. The lengthy instrumental passages throughout are focused, weighty, and glorious, like the playful title cut. The florid city-sprawl of "What She Will" is like a blissful nightmare, My Bloody Valentine with meatier, fouler riffs, and the plod of the Madell-led "Leave Home" attains a thrilling, nocturnal melodrama as it progresses. Best of all is grand finale "Silver Solace," a pulsating trancelike straight line over and above which Key works her magic, the band topping itself out for ten minutes until finally she takes over with a her most wounded, cracked vocal line of the entire album in the final minutes.

I'm not really too taken with Rope-a-Dope on the whole but it's hard to deny that moments like this are intensely enjoyable. Perhaps best to abstain from a fully formed opinion on Antietam yet, then. A lot of it is par for the classicist indie rock course, but... maybe that's a good thing??

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