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Archers of Loaf - Icky Mettle (Remastered)

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Artist: Archers of Loaf

Album: Icky Mettle (Remastered)

Label: Merge

Review date: Jul. 28, 2011

Icky Mettle should have sounded terrible. It was the first album from Archers of Loaf, and they reportedly recorded it in about seven days for very little money. More than anything else, the band was trying to pull off something particularly difficult. Archers of Loaf was one of the heavier American indie rock bands, and never more so than on Icky Mettle. Eric Bachmann, sounding like the evolutionary Paul Westerberg, pushed his already-gravelly voice into the red on every song, while he and Eric Johnson traded squalls of noise from their two guitars; on bass, Matt Gentling was responsible for carrying a lot of the melody, and Mark Price kept everything moving along at a breakneck pace.

But the Archers of Loaf was basically a group of pop songwriters who filled out their work with layers of noise and distortion and then played everything as fast and as loud as possible. This is like hanging around coffin corner: It takes a ton of energy for a band to put something like this over, but they also can’t let that obscure everything else they are trying to do.

That Archers of Loaf pulled it off despite the short time and shoestring budget on Icky Mettle is the reason it’s a classic album – and, looking over the set lists from the band’s current reunion tour, it’s also the record with Archers’ most popular material. This Merge reissue (the first in a series of four studio albums) takes advantage of the reunion tour’s favorable reception, which itself takes advantage of a renewed interest in early 1990s indie rock, both the originals (the Pavement reunion) and their contemporary followers (Yuck, Gold-Bears).

The first LP of the reissue project is the original Icky Mettle, remastered by Bob Weston, while the second includes a collection of odds and ends, including the complete Archers of Loaf vs. The Greatest of All Time EP (which, ironically, did not have the song “Greatest of All Time,” which was on Vee Vee). There’s also the two songs from their first single, an early version of “Wrong,” and its b-side, “South Carolina,” along with all of the songs from the three singles the band released in 1993 and early 1994. The early material is interesting, if only to hear how “Web in Front” and “Wrong” were fleshed out on Icky Mettle. But it’s the album, and The Greatest of All Time, that are the real draw here.

While it’s true that Archers of Loaf’s particular brand of muscular indie rock has come back into fashion lately, it’s also startling how well this album has held up, even setting the trends aside. “Web in Front” is, justly, the flagship song on the album, but “Might,” “Wrong,” and “You and Me” could each have filled that role. (For sheer economy, few lyrics can match the two-for-one put-down that “Wrong” packed into a single line: “Won’t you get yourself a job somewhere away from me?”) And while the songs here sound deliberately ragged and tossed-off, they’re also perfect examples of how a song can stand out based on precisely crafted dynamics. The hooks, such as they are, grow out of those brief moments when the distortion clears or the tempo suddenly slows down. “Backwash,” for example, doesn’t have a chorus at all – it’s memorable just for the way Bachmann sings “and you can stamp that on my forehead.” This particular style also carried over to The Greatest of All Time, which had “Lowest Part of Free!” one of the best indie rock songs about indie rock, and the pensive “All Hail the Black Market.” Bachmann also hinted, on “Freezing Point,” at the more low-key songwriting that the band displayed on later albums.

Bachmann has admitted that he’s not particularly enamored with rock music these days, which is merely confirmation that this reunion won’t result in a lot of new material. But even if Archers of Loaf are just going to play its back catalog, this reunion at least reminds us how much fun it is to listen to one of the most unlikely success stories of the past 20 years.

By Tom Zimpleman

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Vee Vee (Remastered)

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