Album: Italian Platinum
Label: Touch and Go
Review date: Jun. 4, 2002
You may not care that Silkworm have released an album, but you should. Silkworm have been around for so long (12 years) without ever really breaking out that they can seem irrelevant or pointless to the casual listener. They keep churning out records, indifferent to the changing winds of musical vogue or audience demand. At various points, they’ve been labeled the Next Big Thing, been called Steve Albini’s favorite band, and have played enough shows with Stephen Malkmus that some people even thought they were an SM side project. There have been label changes, the loss of Joel Phelps, a core member, and the band has shifted around from Montana to the Pacific Northwest to Chicago, where they now reside.
Throughout all of this, Silkworm have worked to continually refine and distill their sound, stripping away layers to produce rock that could be called minimalist, if not for its immensity. Drummer Michael Dahlquist, guitarist Andy Cohen, and bassist Tim Midgett won’t play three notes when two will do quite nicely, preferring to draw power from the interplay of their instruments rather than the individual parts. Silkworm have even made pausing a huge part of their repertoire, using the lack of sound between notes as if it were another chord or drum fill. When this works, it can generate a wonderful tension and a rhythm that is Silkworm’s own. When it fails, the music can seem bottom-heavy and lumbering. And indeed, while Silkworm is arguably a great band, it is also a band that almost inarguably has at least a couple of dud albums.
After an intense obsession with some of Silkworm’s earlier material (particularly Libertine and Developer), I had lost interest in their more recent output, although I quite liked their cover of the Faces’ “Ooh La La” on Lifestyle, the album preceding Italian Platinum. As a result, I was unprepared for the new record, which could be one of the best rock albums to come out this year. It has elements that are familiar for Silkworm: hard, taut songs and lyrics that split the difference between cryptic and highly personal. There’s something different about the album, though, evidenced on the first track, “(I Hope U) Don’t Survive”. The song is a driving, mid-tempo rocker reminiscent of Crazy Horse-era Neil Young, replete with cooing back-up vocals and a simple but effective lead guitar line. The chorus, with its befuddling line “And I love you means I hope you don’t survive tonight” is delivered with the aid of Kelly Hogan, who appears throughout the album. Few bands sound as masculine as Silkworm, and the effect of Hogan’s often-lush voice in that mix is startling, and it opens up new directions all over the record. On paper, “(I Hope U) Don’t Survive” isn’t a major departure for Silkworm, but it still feels like one. It’s also a great song. Silkworm have taken what they know they can do and extended it, exploring new structures and instrumentation that are sometimes only subtle departures, but pay huge dividends nonetheless. Another important change is the inclusion of Matt Kadane (of Bedhead and the New Year), who plays keyboards and piano on most of the songs here, providing one of the finest moments on the album: a funky clavinet solo in the middle of “White Lightning”.
Longtime producer Steve Albini once again does incredible work, turning Silkworm’s instrumental sparseness into its strongest asset. Each instrument sounds full but direct. There’s no reverb and very limited effects on the guitars, nothing extraneous to distract from the power of the three or four instruments playing together. As is typical of much of Silkworm’s work, the music often works as a platform to push the singing, which is focused but looser and more emotive on this album, even if it could never be called emotional. Indeed, just as pauses in the music are just as important as what’s played, what’s not said in a Silkworm song is often what’s most essential. The characters that float through these songs are often damaged, confused people, but you sense that they’d never admit it.
One notable exception is the song “Young”, a raging ballad sung by Hogan which is by far the most emotional, yearning song that Silkworm has ever produced. It’s not surprising that the band found someone else to sing it, but it’s still an inspired choice, and a song that sticks in the gut long after it’s over. It’s one of many risks on Italian Platinum that pays off, a risk that a younger, less confident band might not take. But Silkworm is not a young band, and they know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not new, and they’re not inventing a new genre, but they are at the height of their powers, and they’ve learned through experience how to connect with each other, and with the listener, to make vital, heavy, beautiful music. So while you may not care that Silkworm have released a new album, this doesn’t change the fact that you need to hear it. Because you do.
By Jason Dungan