Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Archers of Loaf: Icky Mettle (1993)


Almost no band looms larger in the Triangle rock scene (and the general Chapel Hill, NC mythos) than Archers of Loaf, who reigned througout the '90s despite endless record company problems as a sort of southern answer to Pavement much as Antietam were the South's Yo La Tengo. Produced like Mitch Easter mush with a metallic grind, catchy and grandiose if you listen closely enough, and strongly reflective of a time when the fabled grit of L7 and Pixies were inescapable, the classic debut album Icky Mettle doesn't make the comparisons hard to understand. Leader Eric Bachmann projects more rock-star confidence than Stephen Malkmus, albeit with a slight croak in his voice (and is a bit less self-aware), but he has the same snarl, verbosity and buried sweetness. The Archers come on with subtlety as a recording unit -- you have to crank the record up high to get a sense of the anger and passion of their stage performances -- but even with such practiced coolness and detachment, it's obvious at even a glance that there's something mildly contrived about this raucousness.

The dual guitar attack of Bachmann and Eric Johnson is the best element of the unit at this point, somewhat glossing over the fairly standard songwriting by boasting better technical strength than most cult bands of the post-grunge years. Some of the solos have a beauty and bright edge to them suggestive of Television (especially Richard Lloyd's contributions) and the Flamin' Groovies. That latter point seems pertinent on the initial single "Wrong," a hook-filled time capsule of 1992 modern rock radio that could be power pop if it were a little hotter on the treble. At 3:41, it's an appreciably crafty construction with the brash rock quiet-loud move during a broken-down bridge straight off a Who or Boston record. The whole song seems like an endless chorus, approached with gusto. Bachmann's lyrical psychodrama gives it an edge and tension but really the object is straight-ahead obnoxious rock & roll. When the power chords casually slip in on other songs, like "Web in Front," it's an almost naked expression of attitude in the classical sense -- the band might never have aspired to major-label stardom but the radio was always on their minds.

"Web in Front" is also the prime reason Icky Mettle got everyone talking about Pavement, already somewhat legendary at the time despite having released just one full-length record; the slapdash ferocity, ringing guitar and the chanted "ALL I EVER WANTED" over a cloud of sludge and snarl are all red herrings to offset the song's sheer earnestly uncool strength and grandness. "Last Word," the cut that sits between these two small landmarks, even has a conventional big metal chorus; the screaming is dull, but the constant chatter keeps things unusual.

Mettle is deliberately produced with a flat enough sound that even the big transformative climaxes here and there take a while to catch on with you. The intimate bass-only quiet of the first minute of "You and Me" helps communicate its drama; not just lyrically (note the "Angie"-like accusation / lament "I been so down lately, you been so low lately, nothing seems to work out for you and me"), it's sophisticated enough to suggest a complete story we can't fully detect. Then the mandolin exotica of "Hate Paste," a wild outlier with the usual business slathered all over it -- versatility fused with apathy, a punk ethic drawn back to the Replacements and earlier.

When we talk about the angst being contrived, we mean "Fat," which feels readymade for the Butch Vig remix with its big bitter "WHAT DO YOU FUCKINNN," and "Plump Line," the verbose and reflective boorishness of which throws in a witty rejoinder like "you got a collection of things cause that's the best you can do" but jinxes it with the oddly smug sketch of an indie rocker, rhymed with "nothing's gonna stop her." We mean the fuzzed-out drama "Learo, You're a Hole" which sounds like a commercial summarizing the concept of "alternative" rock as of this moment. It's surprising it wasn't all over the radio in 1994 until you get to the chorus, which nevertheless seems a pure put-on Frank Black lift. Even when Bachmann is unhinged, it's a programmatic unhinged. Emotion is audible beneath the booming riffage on "Slow Worm." But where else?

These were adults, and the Archers have a following of seasoned popular guitar music lovers -- and yet the music somehow or another feels excessively familiar, excessively worked over. How much of this is merely a result of its being a product of an offbeat, unexpected attitude change that would even more unexpectedly overtake the industry for a time over the next few years? Icky Mettle is an impressively clever record, but it's awfully slight. The Archers are too afraid to imitate Dean Wareham so instead they lightly parody him (on "Toast"). Politics interest them but only enough for the barbed bon mots of "Wrong." And they dig towering riffs and switched-on pop, as who doesn't, but they're determined to bury it. This record is invaluable as a way to escape into those times and a moment when this could all seem new again. But it's also a distant, unfeeling record determined to offset much of its own appeal. The result is it's interesting, but it's hard to feel anything for it. I'm just being honest, it's the least I could do.

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