Perhaps contrary to popular thought, even before Nirvana brought the grunge, guitar rock was alive and well in the college rock world of the late ’80s. Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth had almost pushed through the MTV membrane into what would be known as alternative, and bands like Treepeople and Hüsker Dü had been touring enough to ignite little fires for underground music scenes all over the country. When the world blew up with rock & roll after Nirvana broke, major labels clamored for the next big thing. Luckily for us, they missed Archers of Loaf on the first go-around, and the band was able to produce, with unfettered acrimony and earnestly meager ambition, Icky Mettle. The record is one of the benchmarks of the indie rock canon, if not for fanbase jab “Plumb Line” alone, then for the loud/quiet double-guitar attack and high-end lo-fi production.
The Archers have all the pedigree needed for a giant posthumous indie-rock tombstone: born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1990 after dropping out of college, they self-released a single, were subsequently courted by and then actively rejected by major labels, were denigrated as a Pavement rip-off, and all the rest. But the discerning feature between the Archers and the rest of the acts occupying the indie rock annals is that, lyrically, they were deeply bitter, wholeheartedly vengeful ex-lovers, lacking in sincere self-esteem, but also devoid of empathy for the pitiable subjects of their songs. The first-person characters were often depreciated, as on “Might,” when Eric Bachmann sings, “I’m so full of self-indulgence to think that you’d like this song.” That “you” also takes many arrows to the chest here and elsewhere—almost as many as Bachmann receives in his own back. The aformentioned “Plumb Line” is a screed concerning an egregious agreer who catches wind of what’s trending and immediately adopts it as if she’s birthed it, put down as the one who’s “got a great collection of things ’cause that’s the best (she) can do.” Then there’s “You and Me,” a relationship-ending song as heart crushing as Sebadoh’s “Soul and Fire,” less so for the lyrics than the swift shifts in volume inherent in its song structure. And let’s not forget “Wrong,” which the reunited band just performed on Jimmy Fallon about a month ago. “Why don’t you get yourself a job somewhere away from me?” Bachmann suggests. And finally there’s “Fat,” probably the meanest song in the sensitive white-boy genre that is indie rock. “I’m not as happy as I once was to see you,” Bachmann sings. “You’re fat around the sides.” That’s just plain mean. With other bands like the Treepeople or Dinosaur, that kind of animosity was usually hidden under mounds of first-person innuendo, but Archers just came right out and said it. This was refreshing, as was the sound of the record. It wasn’t muddy or smeared in distortion, but yet wasn’t clean or major-label friendly. Everything—the guitars, bass, drums, and vocals—was all right where it needed to be in the mix.
It may be like apples and oranges, but being able to spin the original long-player and compare it to this spanking new, expanded remastered version of Icky Mettle goes a long way. There’s nothing wrong with the version released on Alias, and I don’t think that opinion stems from any sentimentality. There are a few moments listening to this newly released version where I was finally able to discern the words Bachmann was moaning under that typhoon of guitars and snare, but surely any hardcore fan of Bachmann and company doesn’t need a remastered version to figure out what he’s saying. If anything, they have their own take on the lyrics, and they’re just fine with it.
So why make with the remastered, expanded version? Again, any Archers nerd probably has two pressings of this gem. Disc two gives them that didn’t buy (or haven’t found in the used-bins) the Archers of Loaf Vs. The Greatest of All Time EP (a.k.a. GOAT, the 10-inch with the hockey dude on the front), as well as a tidy collection of the early 7-inch singles. Sure, it’s novel to hear the early versions of “Wrong” and “Web in Front,” although if I wanted to hear an awkward, sub-par version to the one on Icky Mettle, I’m sure I could find Alkaline Trio covering it on the YouTube. Or maybe I’d listen to the Treepeople version (unfortunately not included here). That at least manages to catch the party vibe. It’s great that Icky Mettle is getting dusted off and pushed back into the limelight again, but I’m not convinced that it really needed any help sonically. I’m still on the lookout for another original copy because mine’s almost worn out.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy
MP3: “What Did You Expect”