Slint: Spiderland reissue – album review
Slint – Spiderland reissue: (Touch & Go Records)
Format: Deluxe Box Set (LP / CD / Book / DVD)
Due Out: 15th April 2014
It’s no exaggeration to claim that Slint’s remarkable second long player, Spiderland, is one of the most important records ever released. Truly seminal (in a way that most records called “seminal” aren’t) you can find it’s essence weaved into the soul of most “post-rock” albums which have seen the light of day since Spiderland first came out on Touch and Go Records in 1991. As you’ll know if you read these pages regularly the album’s about to be reissued as a deluxe box set. For Louder Than War, Simon Tucker gives you his considered, extensive review of the contents of said package.
“Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer”
– William S. Burroughs
1991 was a year of strangeness built for strangers. The US and UK were still trying to claw themselves out of a recession. Daddy Bush was in the White House full of major homespun, conservative charm, and minor intelligence whilst we were being governed by our own dour, grey Prime Minister, suffering to control a country divided and attacked by his predecessor. Major he was not. Our alliance with our friends across the pond leads us into war in the middle-east, a conflict that is (for the time being) resolved quite sharply, but which leaves many civilians and troops alike injured or killed. It’s also the first war that children can buy sticker books of and collect like footballers. A Hollywood war that, daily, shows us the ‘brilliance’ of our destructive weaponry, with footage that leaves us gasping in equal disgust and awe. An African-American man is beaten by police officers, an event videotaped for the whole world to witness and one that will have serious repercussions later on in the year when the officers involved are acquitted.
On our own soil, an inquest into the tragic Hillsborough disaster of ’89 records a (shameful) verdict of ‘accidental death’, therefore letting those in authority on the day off scot-free.
Musically, the mainstream in the UK was covered by bands such as Simply Red. Hucknall and his white-soul voice and shagger antics perching themselves at the top of the charts. Acid-House had morphed into Hardcore and a myriad of other genres and our guitar heroes were either releasing career low’s (Kill Uncle) or just not with us at all. It was in this state that we looked to our American-cousins for inspiration and they delivered in spades. Not only was Hip-Hop slowly seeping into our consciousnesses more and more with each progressive release, but guitar bands were coming back, fighting and clawing their way to the top via a sound attributed to a place on the map called Seattle, but had really started all over the US in towns where groups of like minded people, inspired by punk and hardcore and sick of the hair metal prevalent at the time.
Slowly but surely, the guitar became king again and disenfranchised teenagers everywhere had a mast to nail their flag to. Bands like Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth started getting play on MTV. R.E.M. started their march out of the shadows to the top of the charts with the brilliant Out Of Time aided by the mandolin-led single Loosing My Religion. Then in September of that year, Nirvana released Nevermind and the rest, as they say is history. What most people in the US and the UK did not realise at the time was that, in April of ’91, with no fanfare and on an independent label, a band of young men from Louisville, Kentucky had released an album that would become one of the most influential of all time and create a genre of its own. All of those involved in the album would not know of its importance instantly of course (they’d even broken up before its release) and it would take years of word-of-mouth praise and recommendation for its importance to slowly reveal itself, culminating in requests for reformation and constant remarks about the greatness of this one, six track long, album.
That band was Slint and the album was Spider land.
Everything about Spiderland was enticing. Whether it be the monochrome cover of four young smiling men keeping their head, barely, above water (photo taken courtesy of band friend Will Oldham, someone who will become as iconic as his friends in time), or the (minimal) information on the sleeve that reached out to female vocalists and added to the albums bootleg feel, something about this album seemed … different.
Then the music starts…
Now in 2014, with interest in the band at an all-time high, Touch & Go Records reissue this seminal album in deluxe box-set format. And what an impressive box-set it is containing the original album remastered by original engineer / producer Brian Paulson in 180g vinyl and CD format, a slew of extras and demos, a 104-page book with never-before-seen photos and lyrics, and a DVD documentary, Breadcrumb Trail, about the band directed by Lance Bangs.
So the question is; does the quality match the quantity? Let’s find out.
“Spiderland” is an album which, from the opening three-note harmonics of Breadcrumb Trail, draws you into its gothic-noir world. It’s Americana at its swampiest best. A world that most of us Brits only glimpse through our TV screens and cinema screens.
Musically, the album is the missing link between Can and Black Sabbath, taking in Kind of Blue-era Mile Davis on the way. The band never force the issue leaving riffs to naturally run their course or change direction. Never afraid to leave silences or to burst into monster-riff, Slint show remarkable restraint and confidence. Nosfertau Man perfectly sums up feelings invoked by F. W. Murnau’s silence horror masterpiece, whilst Don Aman slowly shimmies under the skin whispering its musical secrets into our ears. For Dinner … is the only purely instrumental track here and is funeral-march blues, with the band, again, only playing what is necessary. Washer is a heart-wrenching number whose melody invokes heartbreak and the acceptance of ones fate, whilst album closer Good Morning, Captain is a sensational ride through tragic-literature, death and despair.
Lyrically, “Spiderland” deals in subject matters not normally heard of in the punk / hardcore / g**nge guitar bands screaming their teenage angst all over the charts. Instead of rallying against authority we are transported into dustbowl-era America full of carnivals and freak shows (Breadcrumb Trail), creatures of the night (Nosfertau Man) and feelings of isolation and loneliness (Don, Aman). Washer’s lyrics are naïve and bluntly honest, making them sometimes difficult to listen to without breaking into tears, but it is on album closer Good Morning, Captain that the true strength of the band’s lyrics is displayed. Narrating a story straight out of Penguin Classics, Brian McMahan leads the listener onto the sea for a story that has everything from death to hope, natural disasters to human triumph. However, it is the last section of the song when the story seems to return to the narrator himself, and his own demons, do we get a moment in modern musical history that stands up with the best. As the band explode, Brian screams “I Miss You” repeatedly before deciding into a guttural howl. As revelatory as the Beatles shaken-headed ‘woo’s” and as gut wrenching as any of Cobain’s narcotic screams of despair, this moment will leave you breathless, exhilarated, and full of euphoria. A scream to end all screams…
This remastered version adds added clarity to the recordings and gives an even greater sense of the listener being in the room that it was recorded in. Musical notes flutter around your head, the vocals are whispered directly into your ears and the crunches, when they appear, slap you around the face daring you to stick with it. An incredible job by Brian Paulson.
The thirteen extra tracks included in the box set vary in quality, but are interesting insights into the band pre and post Spiderland.
Pre-Spiderland we are treated to an incredible live run through of the Neil Young classic Cortez The Killer, the gothic nature of which makes it pefect for the band. A firm fan favorite and a track that bridges the gap between the debut album and its follow up. We also get full band and vocal demos of Washer, Good Morning, Captain, and Nosferatu Man which show the songs in various stages of completion. The highlight of which is the basement practice versions of Nosferatu Man and Washer. Devoid of lyrics, you hear the band joshing around before breaking into the songs themselves. The true revelation is how close to the finished article these versions are. The band sound incredibly tight and these versions really hit home how incredibly talented the band were with David Pajo’s harmonics and precise playing adding texture and melody whilst Todd Brashear’s bass playing is solid and nimble, bouncing around the different time signatures.
Post – Spiderland material includes songs entitled Brian’s Song and Todd’s Song, the best of which being Brian’s. Using a drum machine Brian plays a swamp blues riff rich for developing. It would have been incredibly interesting to see where this song would have gone and to have heard its finished form.
The only non-important tracks here are the Evanston riff versions of Good Morning, Captain and Nosferatu Man which are just a few seconds of the riffs being recorded for posterity.
The stunning accompanying book opens with a foreword by the aforementioned Will Oldham who succinctly describes the band’s surroundings and ambitions whilst also not falling into the fawning trap. A nice tribute from a true friend, it is a great entry point into the book.
The main body of the book (which is 99% photos) leads us through the band’s lives from childhood to “Spiderland”. The main point of interest being photos of the band as youngsters at gigs and their development through bands various bands. Flicking through, you get a real sense of the music scene of the time and what went into the DNA of the various band members themselves.
For all the photos, it is the reproduction of the lyrics to “Spiderland” that most fans will be drawn to. When the lyrics are laid down as such, you get a sense that each song could be fleshed out into a novella. This is short-story not song. You also get a chance to check that you’ve been singing is right.
The one downside is you still don’t get the full last section of Good Morning, Captain which was improvised in the studio. That’s one section that you’ll have to keep guessing at.
Finally, we come to the DVD documentary and, apart from the album itself, the main highlight of this box-set. Created by uber-fan Lance Bangs, the documentary is where we discover the truth behind the myth and a whole lot more. We discover what a nurturing and supportive parental unit Britt had, encouraging him every step of the way to be creative (in fact, the whole band were allowed to tour the States in a van, when they were just 14 years old). We hear from friends and acquaintances of the band including Steve Albini, James Murphy, Matt Sweeney, David Yow, and Ian MacKaye who talk about the musical scene that the band grew up around and how they were at once very grown up yet simultaneously (and correctly) childish by nature (the stories of pranks, and the ‘anal breathing tape’ add much humour to the Slint story). Brian’s accident before the recording of “Spiderland” commenced is relayed in horrific detail and adds some weight to his reasons for leaving shortly after the recordings were completed (the story of him checking into hospital shortly after is also confirmed here).
The break-up of the band is dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way and there seemed to be no animosity within the group. Post-Slint, the film chronicles what each individual member embarked on next with varying degrees of success, but it is Britt’s story that is at once the most compelling, but also slightly upsetting. Flitting between projects, towns, and jobs (he once worked in a cake shop making penis cakes whilst staying with James Murphy in New York) it is he, out of the entire band that seems a bit adrift and unsure of himself. Even though he was instrumental in the sound of the first Breeders album (Pod, 1990) he does not continue with the band and still has a wealth of material unfinished and unrecorded. You get the feeling it is he, more than the others, that was most hurt by the breakup of the band and who has never quite found the right band-mates to feel as fulfilled as he did when in Slint.
Lance Bangs’ film is an incredible piece of work that is respectful of the band whilst giving the audience the much desired insight into this most important group. It teaches us not to make assumptions about that school –band setting up their gear on the stage and it also shows what a warm, encouraging family unit can do for a young child.
“Spiderland” will continue to inspire musicians young and old. People will keep finding new things in its sinewy grasp which will encourage musicians to be as naturalistic as possible. Let the music guide you and not the other way round. Don’t force anything and, most importantly, practice practice practice.
“I’m trying to find my way home..
I Miss You”
- A1 Breadcrumb Trail (Remastered)
- A2 Nosferatu Man (Remastered)
- A3 Don, Aman (Remastered)
- B1 Washer (Remastered)
- B2 For Dinner… (Remastered)
- B3 Good Morning, Captain (Remastered)
- C1 Nosferatu Man (Basement Practice)
- C2 Washer (Basement Practice)
- C3 Good Morning, Captain (Demo)
- D1 Pam (Rough Mix, Spiderland Outtake)
- D2 Glenn (Spiderland Outtake)
- D3 Todd’s Song (Post-Spiderland Song in Progress)
- E1 Brian’s Song (Post-Spiderland Demo)
- E2 Cortez The Killer (live Chicago 1989)
- F1 Washer (4 track Vocal Demo)
- F2 Nosferatu Man (4 track Vocal Demo)
- F3 Pam (4 track Vocal Demo)
- F4 Good Morning, Captain (Evanston Riff Tape)
- F5 Nosferatu Man (Evanston Riff Tape)
- F6 Pam (Evanston Riff Tape)
All words by Simon Tucker. For more of Simon’s writings for Louder Than War visit his author’s archive or follow him on Twitter @simontucker1979