Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Unlisted: Spiderland

Band: Slint
Album: Spiderland
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Not a lot of people know "Spiderland" and I'd be overstating its import if I said it was the most important record ever. It's not. But, it's important for underground music.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "Spiderland" is one of the starts of post-rock. The album's influence can be heard in everyone from Mogwai to Isis to Tortoise to The Shins and the like. It's full of emotion and angular guitar.
Best song: I have five favorite songs. One of them is "Good Morning Captain."
Worst song: The closest thing to a bad song is "For Dinner..." and it's one of the best instrumental rock songs ever.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

Steve Albini, before Big Black and before his status as "engineer" du jour, was a columnist for rock zines in the 80s. He was infamous for being opinionated for the sake of being opinionated and he ruffled a lot of feathers.

Nevertheless, he also has written a review, column or whatever in bits and spurts since he became a full-time engineer/musician. I don't know he came to write the definitive review of one of my favorite albums of all-time, but he did. In 1991, he wrote this for the U.K. music magazine "Melody Maker:"

Slint's music has always been primarily instrumental, and Spiderland isn't a radical departure, but the few vocals are among the most pungent of any album around. When I first heard Brian McMahan whisper the pathetic words to "Washer", I was embarrassed for him. When I listened to the song again, the content eluded me and I was staggered by the sophistication and subtle beauty of the phrasing. The third time, the story made me sad nearly to tears. Genius.

Go ahead and read it. The review makes one thing clear: "Spiderland" is so good it made Steve Albini -- a man with a heart surely made of stone -- cry.


My relationship with Slint is a little odd, as they're one of my favorite bands, but -- like a lot of great indie rock -- I got into them a little late. I was 10 when this record came out and I'd only known of Slint tangentially until I got to college. I'd a tape copy of "Spiderland," but had "Tweez" and the "Rhoda" single. "Spiderland" is the epic, but I didn't have a CD copy until a friend gave it to me as a gift late in college.


To say Slint is distinctive would be an understatement. There really isn't a band like them. They're not hardcore and while they largely set a template for post-rock, that genre has turned into something completely different. Lyrically, the band is sparse and musically, they don't fit into a genre. The clean guitars build slowly until they turn into distortion. Like the best baseball and hockey games, there's a lot of waiting around for a climax and when it comes, it's blissful.


There are scores of unique superficial things about "Spiderland." There's the CD that comes unmarked, with simply the TG 64 catalog number and copyright information printed on the clear plastic middle. There's the packaging, from the distinctive arachnid to the Albini-esque "This recording is meant to be listened to on vinyl" and the liner notes message "interested female vocalists write 1864 douglas blvd. lousville, ky. 40205." Allegedly, PJ Harvey wrote to this address and never got a reply. Supposedly, Rodan was created partially because Tara Jane O'Neil wrote to the address, as well.

Of course, the famous cover is also there. Taken by indie rock stalwart Will Oldham at a rock quarry in Southern Indiana, the photo has a child-like quality to it. Maybe it's just me, but swimming in a rock quarry seems to be the kind of thing teenagers did in books like "A Separate Peace." Still, the cover is classic, referenced by The Shins in their "New Slang" video.


There's a raw emotion in Brian McMahan's vocals is striking in its passion. The album opener, the dropped-d "Breadcrumb Trail" has McMahan half-screaming as he splays "Creeping up into the sky" in the song's chorus. His half talk/sing verses emit a coolness unparalleled in music at the time or even now. "Nosferatu Man" tells the Hallowe'en story through a rolling rhythm and high pitched harmonics. Unlike the underground rock of the 80s, there's no jangle, irony or jokes. The record is pure passion.

Throughout the record guitars build until they all fall out like a Niagra Falls of distortion. Sometimes, that cascade never comes; "Don, A Man" never climaxes. Sometimes, it takes until the final piece of the song, like in "Good Morning Captain."

"Good Morning Captain" is one of my favorite songs. Like any superlatively great song, the song creates a mood. "Good Morning Captain," however, takes you through a series of moods. Indeed, the song is like a thriller, film noir or horror film on a record. It starts off soft and slow, like the calm of suburbia. The song then speeds up to reveal a quiet, easy verse with McMahan again speak-singing the story of a shipwreck. The song's chorusy thing (it's hardly conventional, so to call the d-g-g portion a chorus is probably silly) is another exercise in anticipation. As McMahan comes closer to the resolution of the song, he finishes the song with the famous lines, over the chorusy section:

I miss you.
I've grown taller now.
I want the police to be notified.
I'll make it up to you,
I swear, I'll make it up to you.

Then, as the wailing guitar feedback comes in, McMahan screams "I miss you!" three times as the band slams into one another. Like a fantastic noir movie, the song comes together at the last moment, with the listener along for the ride.

And that's "Spiderland" in a nutshell. Slint tells a wonderful story through delayed gratification and anticipation through intricate guitar work. "Spiderland" is wonderful.

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