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Tome On The Range

Slint Versus Radiohead: Continuum Bookends The Indie Rock 1990s
John Doran , November 29th, 2010 11:35

The next two editions in the 33 ⅓ series tackle Spiderland and Kid A; John Doran can see the sense in reading them together as they present a minimalist to maximalist reading of left field indie rock in the 1990s

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In 2005 a friend was bemoaning Slint's decision to reform in order to curate All Tomorrow’s Parties. Before this sorry weekend it had been easy to get boys to talk to her; all she had to do was wear a Spiderland T-shirt to a gig or a club night. They were drawn, moth-like to her. Here was a girl who clearly understood.

However the reformation affected the standing of the Louisville, Kentucky four-piece (people were perhaps less hushed when talking of them afterwards) and the desirability of my friend (there were less male heads turned caused by an abundance of next generation Slint shirts) Spiderland remains a rite of passage album for those serious about serious indie rock. Back in 1991, milestone alternative rock albums were being released left, right and centre. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless finally saw the light of day but it felt more like the final nail in the shoe gaze coffin, rather than the birth of something new. R.E.M.’s Out Of Time proved that mainstream indie had all but lost its way. The Pixies, we are continuously told, 'came up with' a loud quiet loud formula but by 91 and their final album, Trompe Le Monde, this had all but gone, replaced by the loud louder loud reinterpretation of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Instead it was a difficult album - that no-one really seemed to care about and no one bought at the time by a band who split up as soon as it was released - that would cast a long, if somewhat spindly, shadow across the new decade.

Of course, it seems almost odd that Continuum have waited until book number 75 to tackle Spiderland. And at first, it seems like Scott Tennent, a senior writer and editor at the LA County Museum of Art and the Pretty Goes With Pretty blog, has signalled his inability to cope with the project in hand by ignoring the brief and writing about Slint’s entire (original) five year history instead of their key album. But really Slint’s ordinariness is integral to the story and Tennent does well to stretch it to 147 pages. But you have to remember that whatever sky-scraping plaudits have been heaped on it since, it didn’t exactly set the world ablaze when first released selling just a couple of thousand copies in the first year (it has gone on to sell 50,000). It generally wasn’t held to be that much more important than Bitch Magnet’s Umber for example, and, in all probability, would have sunk without trace if it wasn’t for the inclusion of ‘Good Morning, Captain’ on the OST of Larry Clark’s Kids and Steve Albini’s relentless pimping. (He gave the album “ten fucking stars” in a review he wrote for Melody Maker, that was both prescient and heartfelt.)

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that people’s recollections are hazy meaning the interviews are sparse and contradictory and mainly consist of people talking about rehearsals. Wisely he chooses to dismantle the few myths that have sprung up around the recording (that several band members were institutionalized by the intensity of the recording process - an urban myth which does little other than to reveal the narrow horizons of some indie rock fans). Of course, the ordinariness of Slint's story is central; it gave them some of their brutal power. After a polychromatic alternative 1980s Slint quietly signalled a new way of doing things for those paying attention: a pianissimo fortissimo pianissimo (spread over an album as much as a song) approach to volume control, and similar contrasts in vocals (whisper, scream, whisper), subject matter (serious, goofy, serious), guitar FX, texture, time signatures etc etc etc.

Once the author has dealt with the tangled genesis of the group, what the various members went on to achieve afterwards and lengthy descriptions of all their songs there isn’t much room left for him to manouevre in but there are still a few breadcrumbs of scintillating detail to ingest. The best of these passages describes how a pre-Slint Maurice (featuring David Pajo and Britt Walford) went on tour with Glenn Danzig’s Samhain with none other than Will Oldham (who would go on to be responsible for the iconic Spiderland cover photo among other things) as roadie. Both Walford and Bonny Prince Billy had Misfits style devil locks (perhaps explaining why he is now bald) and did little other than talk about Danzig, so to be invited on tour with them was a dream come true.

“Offstage Walford and Oldham would entertain the Samhain guys with their impressions of people with cerebral palsy (bear in mind they were fifteen); Danzig sat on a porch in Bloomington, strumming a guitar and singing ‘I was born with a small dick’ to the tune of John Cougar Mellencamp’s ‘Small Town’ (bear in mind he was thirty-one) - eminently profound experiences for the Louisville juveniles.”

And given that it was Slint as a concept (one that certainly includes their single track ‘Glen’ as much as ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ or ‘Washer’) that went on to be so important to the continued progression of post hardcore and the efflorescence of post rock, Tennent is ultimately proved to be right. (Even though his insanely over-extended note by note description of their most famous track ended up provoking the same angsty and nervous reactions in this reader as listening to ‘Good Morning, Captain’ itself does. Something which may well have been the point.)

And from a minimalist, obscure, dour, pre-internet, word of mouth start to leftfield indie rock in the 1990s, Continuum pull a blinder by choosing the altogether more world bestriding, maximalist, inextricably tied to the internet, fin de siecle summoning, not to mention multi-million selling Kid A - as the subject for volume 76.

Marvin Lin, a co-founder of Tiny Mix Tapes and a former editor of Pitchfork, hits the ground running by accurately recalling the insane amount of hype that preceded the release of Radiohead’s fourth album. He paints a vivid picture of allowing himself to become a bubble of inflated pomposity (something that will chime with a lot of people reading) in the weeks leading up to the release in 2000 by outlining how he saw the album as a chance to achieve hitherto unimagined levels of sublime transcendence. This is a bubble of pomposity he takes great pleasure in taking a pin to:

“On October 3, 2000 (midnight October 2), I purchased Kid A at a record store and rushed back to my dorm room, fast walking like a fucking fanboy idiot. I was so excited to finally enact the ritual. I proceeded to put on my headphones to block out any potential disruption, flicked off the lights, and closed my eyes... all the waiting, all the teasing, all the hype, all the research, all the anticipation, all the asceticism, all the enthusiasm had combined to create what I believed to be the perfect disposition for pre-transcendence, the ideal state of mind to sponge up Kid A.
But I was wrong. Not because of the impossible expectations I had for the album, but because the whole ordeal wore me out.
So I fell asleep. Twice.
I FELL ASLEEP TWICE DURING MY FIRST LISTEN TO Kid A.”

While it’s true that Lin has a wealth of source material to refer to, manipulate and deconstruct (compared to Tennent especially), he certainly sets about his job with relish and intelligence breaking the book down into nine chapters with titles such as Kid Authenticity, Kid Aesthetics and Kid Apocalypse; dealing with the album in terms of themes, while sticking to a straight-ish, user friendly narrative.

Among numerous subjects touched upon by this book is Radiohead’s engagement with so-called IDM, whether they could still be called a rock group anymore and if they weren’t... then what they hell were they? (This leads into an amusing recollection of some of the more fevered attempts to pin down just what was going on. Bear in mind that even though they’ve gone to some lengths to distance themselves from it in the intervening years, even WIRE were fascinated by what Radiohead were going through and gave them a front cover because of it. In fact one of the few notable press reactions at the time not mentioned here was that of Nick Hornby who described it as being akin to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music proving, yet again, his complete and overwhelming unfitness for purpose, even as a lowly music hack. Out of all the examples cited, the crowning example of critical overreach has to be Chuck Klosterman’s assertion that Kid A successfully predicted 9/11. And if Melody Maker got it right with Spiderland oh boy, did they get it wrong with Kid A. But at least the MM had the guts to call what it saw as a naked emperor as regards to a tremendously popular band; where most shrugged, played guess the genre or said, LOL, people will love this in a decade's time... i.e. it was the same old story - most music journalists didn't have the nerve for a snap decision and even the few that did, mainly called it wrong.)

Lin gets stuck into some cultural theory without coming completely unstuck, describing time and music as abstracts and... well, it's all well and good but unsatisfyingly, he never quite gets as far as nailing exactly why Kid A was a quantum leap forward in popular music, as opposed to say, Endtroducing, Selected Ambient Works or some other critically lauded touchstone of the 90s.

Anything that makes us remember what these two albums sounded like when they came out (or when we first heard them) is a good thing, and personally I enjoyed taking a day long trip down misery lane. Both books are a success and they stand to be read together but Lin's book is smart enough to rank alongside other personal favourites from this series that include Drew Daniel's 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Christopher Weingarten's Nation Of Millions and Hugo Wilcken's Low.

And of course all of this leads us to one conclusion: that very soon Continuum are going to announce numbers 77 and 78 in their impeccable 33 ⅓ series: Ice Cube’s Death Certificate and Outkast’s Stankonia, for example, because today's not just white boy day and the 1990s weren't just about indie rock... right?

damien
Nov 29, 2010 6:44pm

Nick Hornby who described it as being akin to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music proving, yet again, his complete and overwhelming unfitness for purpose

-
spot on!

best of all was Jim Irivin in MOJO who gave it a kicking and went as far as using the word 'wank' in the opening few sentences. i like Jim Irvin mind he's a good guy but it was a grave error of judgement.

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Tim Russell
Nov 30, 2010 2:46am

Good article, and Nick Hornby is a fucking idiot who should be legally barred from writing about music. In his dreadful book "31 Songs" he makes the following points:
* In the 3-minute single, pop has achieved its perfect form so there's no point experimenting or trying anything new
* Only teenagers like Led Zeppelin, as adults are too mature to listen to anything that loud & dumb
* Nick Cave mellowing out is a good thing
* He has never heard British Sea Power, but he doesn't want to as he's seen a picture of them looking a bit scary
* Atonal, experimental music (he cites Suicide's Frankie Teardrop) is the preserve of the privileged middle classes who have never really suffered - if they had, they wouldn't want to listen to scary music

The man is an utter tool and should stick to writing half-arsed chick lit.

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uncle d
Nov 30, 2010 11:31am

In reply to Tim Russell:

I couldn't agree more the man makes me feel ill. I think he sags under the extreme weight of being
ordinary.

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5onthe5
Nov 30, 2010 4:11pm

I like Kid A just fine...if someone could give me or link me to a succinct explanation of why it was a "quantum leap" in popular music I'd appreciate it. I'm serious...I've read that kind of sentiment about it before but not seen it argued in full.

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Ass_Hat
Nov 30, 2010 8:51pm

this struck a chord. i didn't fall asleep the first time i heard 'kid a', as i was in company, but i recall people forgetting it was on the stereo a fair few times. i've never read anything about it that substantiates the waffle written about it ("abstracts" indeed)--and it sounds like this book dodges that too. fair play to them critics what trashed it first time out.

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Monsieur Gaffe
Dec 1, 2010 6:22am

Hugo Wilcken's LOW is the best 33 1/3-a masterpiece. And KID A's innovation/quantum leap that Doran discusses in the paragraph three up from the bottom can be summed up as such: it was the first rock release to incorporate music that essentially blew apart rock's very existence/rules (Warp/IDM, post-rock, "serious" music) while at the same time playing by some of those very rules (beautiful melody, anthemic aspects, catchy choruses, etc.) KID A walked a tightrope between exploding rock and epitomizing it, and that tension was exciting: to be considered legit, rock after KID A had to explore new forms or appear hopelessly retrograde (or at the very least sound like the dreaded sophomore album from the Strokes)...

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Dec 2, 2010 6:06pm

In reply to Monsieur Gaffe:

I'd argue that some of the Canterbury groops or even as commercial entities as Pink Floyd had gone as far with the technology available to them a long time earlier.

I like Kid A but I think that anyone thinking it was rewriting rules hasn't listened to enough music.

Sure, there were some fractured beats and nods to avant electronica of the time and immediately preceeding it, but it was still an album of pretty straight songs at the back of all this, nothing mindblowing in that.

Still, it's a great album and I think head and shoulders above the Louisville introspection of Spiderland.

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Matt
Jan 13, 2011 5:31am

Radiohead have to be the most overrated band of all time - deserved credit for such work as The Bends and OK Computer, but after that it's all insufferably dull, pretentious crap. Thom Yorke has to have the most irritating whiny voice in music. The man is a poor man's Morrissey - all self pitying but devoid of any of the wit and charm of the latter. I find it bemusing how some deluded folk put them alongside the true greats of rock. I couldn't care less if Kid A is 'something different' - it's the most god damn boring shite I've ever listened to. Albeit from the odd moment of magic like Pyramid Song, it's been the same trollop since that album.

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Concerned Citizen
Aug 7, 2014 4:18pm

My memories of both Spiderland and Kid A, and their reception at the time, differ quite a bit from Mr. Doran's. Spiderland was a very well received record in the U.S. indie underground. Fanzines gave it glowing reviews, word of mouth spread quickly, and the record sold quite well for an indie record at the time. I read about it as a teenager living in a remote American province, bought it, and enjoyed it immensely. (Bitch Magnet, by comparison, barely registered -- to this day, I haven't heard Umber). Twenty years later, Spiderland still sounds good, but the lyrics sound like the work of a sensitive teenager, which of course they were, and as such are a touch embarrassing to these nearly-forty-year-old ears. It's a fine record, and it's surprising that four kids so young could fashion a music so measured and sophisticated; but the praise heaped on the record in the past decade or so strikes one as disproportionate to its merits. Nor do I hear a long line of bands bearing the imprint of its influence (though in the nineties there were a number of imitators, e.g. Rodan, who quickly disappeared).
When it was released, Kid A was monumental by dint of its ubiquity. There were some very interesting beats on that record, vocal treatments, etc.; and more than a step forward or a revolution in songwriting or production, it seemed at the time to crystallize the state of the art. In late 2000, as a listener whose head was buried deep in a half-century's worth of underground / left-field rock and experimental music, it gave me great pleasure to walk past a shop or a cafe and hear Kid A coming out of the speakers within -- it was reassuring to hear that mainstream pop music had intersected with one's sensibilities. Fourteen years later, that seems an unimportant consideration, and so Kid A has depreciated.

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