The glut of 90s-minded bands to emerge in the past two years or so has been exhaustedly covered by music sites all over the web (this one included). But critics and commenters alike often fail to note the significant difference between today’s bare-bones indie heroes and their predecessors. Yuck has plenty of distortion, but sounds less messy and more innocent than Dinosaur Jr. ever did. Surfer Blood’s riffs are as catchy as their lyrics are weird and impenetrable, but they never reach the bizarre sonic and thematic depths of Pavement. All of these acts have their merits and all of them have produced consistently strong work. But on a whole, ’90s guitar bands were far shaggier animals than the musicians of the 2000s. And few were shaggier than Archers of Loaf. Merge’s reissuing of their entire catalog continues with their slump-skirting sophomore effort, Vee Vee, which, like Icky Mettle before it, reminds modern listeners of just how unhinged their sound was, especially when compared to those that came after them.
Even the hugest hooks are poised to fall apart at any moment. Eric Bachmann and Eric Johnson’s hazily dueling licks from leadoff track “Step into the Light” never quite sync up with the sludgy rhythm section of Matt Gentling and Mark Price. Laced with background vocals that sound hollered from the bottom of a well, the song is an exercise in addicting slop, a sonic nugget that’s part pop, part stoner punk. The pace increases throughout the rest of the record, but the aesthetic remains the same and the influences grow odder. The furious momentum of both “Harnessed in Slums” and the chorus to “Let the Loser Melt” share a cadence reminiscent of Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Tricky” (seriously, listen to it), while closer “Underachievers March and Fight Song” mashes clumsy toybox trumpet with off-kilter grunge for a football cheer that sounds like it’s being played by a gang of detention hall slackers.
At the album’s core, the brief instrumental “1985” segues a garage circus organ into the unabashed rocker, “Fabricoh”. Here, Bachmann’s gruff bark is a welcome memory when stacked against his faux Spanish accent in his more recent work with Crooked Fingers. “Rocking it out!” he belts, referring to a crowd the protagonist leaves behind at the end of the song. It’s never clear whether the frontman is celebrating an audience’s exuberance or decrying their mob mentality. Maybe it’s both. And that’s the beauty of Bachmann’s lyrics. They alternate between personal appeals and cryptic narratives, the literal and the obtuse. “Nostalgia” is the meatheaded threat of a greaser while “Greatest of All Time” chronicles the fan-induced drowning of the world’s worst musician, which prompts the world’s best (and also dead) musician to escape Heaven and return to Earth. The song’s mention of the Devil and the overcrowded underground evoke an indie scene being synonymous with Hell, making for a double meaning that’s both cloudy and fascinating.
Of course, none of this is news to any longtime Archers of Loaf fan. Aside from the remastered sound, reissues are reissues because of their goodies, and Vee Vee has plenty, even if a handful of them seem a bit superfluous. While it’s great to see the invigorating “Harnessed in Slums” single B-sides “Telepathic Traffic” and “Don’t Believe the Good News” included, they’re preceded by a radio mix of the titular track that sounds almost identical to the original. Matador’s Pavement reissues contained all of the band’s B-sides in their entirety, but left the A-sides solely on disc one so there could be more room for rarities. Elsewhere on the second disc, the instrumental surfer cum spy theme “Mark Price P.I.” gets old fast, as does unreleased jam “Equinox”. Then again, these are bonuses that will no doubt be enjoyed by completists (even if only listened to once or twice), and one has a hard time arguing against the rustically haunting spoken word of “Big Joe and Phantom 309” and the soul baring home demos of almost half of Vee Vee.
Even the album artwork gets a makeover that suggests the band is perfectly aware of its legacy. The original release’s straightforward photo of a woman leaning against a car has been replaced by a creepy cartoon of the same image, but with a background of dead trees and a cluster of green tendrils coiling around the vehicle’s grill. Like Archers of Loaf’s music, it’s a mixture of the classic and the macabre, a reminder of just how wonderfully strange this band is before you even unwrap the album.
Essential Tracks: “Step into the Light”, “Fabricoh”