Slint – Spiderland

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1. One of the best-fitted title-cover-music combinations there ever was. Maybe even the best.

2. The existence of this album forces us to ask just what the fuck “post-rock” really means.

3. This album is well-deserved of its cult-classic status, and don’t delude yourself: this is as definitive as far as the term “cult-classic” goes. Mac Randall, in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, which re-evaluated tons of albums they screwed up the first time, or else evaluated albums they didn’t know existed (and thereby screwed up the first time), published in 2004, awarded the album 2.5 stars, citing that “the absence of anything resembling a tune continues to nag.” Yes, Rolling Stone, because melody is the only component that makes music music.

4. If you enjoyed Spiderland and are wondering where to go from that, I’ll save you the trouble: you will never hear another album like this one – and it’s been more than two decades since! Slint’s previous (and only other) album, Tweez, doesn’t have the “mysticism” (for lack of a better word) and doesn’t show them as possessing any instrumental chops at all (compare the usage of harmonics on “Kent” – which are just an excuse to use harmoncis and “Breadcrumb Trail” – which are the finest use of them since Yes’ “Roundabout”). Conversely, Slint’s only other release, the single Glenn / Rhodareleased three years later, shows their instrumental chops, but has no vocals.

5. Still though, and I’m sorry to say it, but innovation doesn’t always mean greatness. On the rare occasion that I’m ever to play the album all the way through in a single sitting, I have a tendency to stop caring around “Don, Aman” until the chiming guitars that imitate bells of “Good Morning Captain” begins. That’s not to say that “Washer” is bad – it’s definitely worth a listen; it’s the only track that McMahan sings on, and it’s pretty clear from “Washer” why he doesn’t sing as the go-to delivery vehicle for his lyrics, and why the vocals are mixed extremely low throughout the entire record. Then there’s instrumental “For Dinner…” is pretty useless. Let me be clear: obviously, these guys can play their instruments, but there are better examples of that on Spiderland. It just feels like directionless pseudo-ambience installed to fill the album out (it would only be 34 minutes long without it), and doesn’t actually get interesting until the 4:10 mark, but even then, I’m hesitant to use the word “interesting” so much as “audible.” It sounds just like one chord is being played over and over.

6. The problem with the low mixing of vocals means it’s hard to actual tell what McMahan (or Walford, who handles vocals of “Don, Aman”) are actually saying/singing. A line like “I’ve grown taller now / I want the police to be notified” on closer “Good Morning, Captain” is cool – frighteningly so – but to be honest, I can never hear it, even if I’m reading along with a lyrics sheet. I suppose, in Spiderland‘s defense, the low mixing of all the vocals make certain ones stand out, “Don stepped outside,” the opening line of “Don, Aman,” is as pedestrian as my previous example but as chillingly effective as, say, “Let me in, the voice cried softly” of “Good Morning, Captain.”

7. But to say that the lyrics are the major focus of a(ny) math rock or post-rock album would be self-deleterious. It’s never talked about because people often focus on the crescendos or (hopefully not, at least) the storytelling, but Slint were clearly great at making riffs: the already mentioned one in the bookending sections of “Breadcrumb Trail” could have made a great song by itself; the one in “Nosferatu Man” basically takes the confrontational chainsaw-like guitar of some of the songs on Tweez (see, for example, “Ron”), which were, frankly the only part of that album worth keeping, fleshing it out over a longer track length; the way the continuous strumming on “Don Aman” briefly turn into frantic stabs right as they threaten to get boring (at the 4:24 mark); the way the aforementioned guitars sound like bells on “Good Morning Captain” (I suppose, if post-rock is “rock instruments being used for non-traditional rock purposes,” this is it) and finally, the hypnotic groove of Todd Brashear’s bass on both “Nosferatu Man” and “Good Morning Captain.”

8. My favorite part on “Breadcrumb Trail” occurs at the 1:24 mark, after a bridge bridge from Britt Walford’s lone cymbal taps that signify something huge is on the way and the band delivers – over gratuitous amounts of distortion, the high-pitched guitars puncture like daggers. But my favorite part is how the lyrics, “CREEPING UP INTO THE SKY. STOPPING, AT THE TOP, AND STARTING DOWN. THE GIRL GRABBED MY HAND, I CLUTCHED IT TIGHT. I SAID GOOD-BYE TO THE GROUND,” seemed to me when I first heard it to be about the anxiety of being in love but it just depicted the narrator and the fortuneteller on a roller coaster instead (again, something I didn’t know until I read the lyrics sheet). I guess the two – being in love and being on a roller coaster – are remarkably similar.

9. My favorite part of the album though is – obviously – the climax of “Good Morning Captain.” The song holds up individually, sure, but in the context of the album, it feels like the whole constant play using dynamic shifts had been slowly moving up to this fantastic, cathartic release. The lyrics are inspired by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but the most pertinent ones are relevant in any situation, as far as I’m concerned, the way McMahan repeats “I’ll make it up to you / I swear, I’ll make it up to you” (is that vocal layering in the background?), before screaming “I MISS YOUUUU / I MISS YOUUUUUUU / OOOOOAOHHHHHHMISSSSSS YOUUUU / I MISS YOUUUUUAHHHHHHHHH!” over fully realized guitars. To me, it’s like the narrator is fully aware of his impending doom and viscerally screaming out to a distant memory in the hopes that she’ll hear him. Perhaps the greatest album closer to ever exist (shove off, “Sister Ray” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”) and when I said that I rarely do put on the album as a whole, “Good Morning, Captain” receives regular rotation.

10. Best album of 1991.

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