The Neglected Canon #1

by Billy Brooks

Editor’s Note: I am really excited to introduce PearShaped’s latest column, The Neglected Canon, written by Billy Brooks. Each fortnight Billy will be discussing artists and albums which he believes haven’t been given enough attention or appreciation. Prepare to reminisce about old favourites and be introduced to new ones. 

You know you’ve left your stamp on pop culture if your name is dropped in Gilmore Girls, and Slint, as any avid Gilmore Girls fan will know, are a five piece post punk outfit from Kentucky.  Their seminal album Spiderland is mentioned in perhaps the most out-there and obscure pop culture reference in the show. It’s fitting that a series so keenly post-modern in its pop references would mention a band like Slint at some point, and the way that they get a mention (a vinyl geek in a record store explains who Slint are while two of the main characters are perusing the backroom shelves of a hip record store in New York – his input is met with confused shrugs) basically sums up the band. If you’re really into the emo and post punk scene that emerged in America in the eighties and nineties, you probably know about Slint. Guitarist David Pajo went on to work with Corgan on Zwan, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, among other post-Slint odd jobs. But like a lot of sub-genres, Slint’s is a small world, and they did nothing in their short-lived career together to market themselves to a larger rock audience.

While their first album, Tweez, perhaps suffered from a lack of a cohesive manifesto to tie the tracks together, it was saved by its experimental touches and Steve Albini’s production, which is predictably astonishing. It sounds like the guy mumbling through a vo-coder about his tweezer fetish on the penultimate track is right in the room with you! Each track is named after the original four band members’ parents – with one extra for the drummer’s dog, Rhoda. The album demands that it be taken as a single work, whose over-arching musical vision from track to track is equal to more than the sum of its composite parts. Perhaps for this reason, it is understandable that the first track, Ron, is the highlight of the release. The remainder of the album seems occasionally to be a continuous morphing of one single track rather than a selection of different songs.

During the recording of the band’s sophomore effort, Spiderland, members of the group were rumoured to have been institutionalised due to the sheer intensity of the creative process which produced it. Nobody’s ever really cleared this up, though every band member, as well as the producer Brian Paulson, is unanimous in describing the four-day recording experience as emotionally draining, if not traumatic. The album’s six songs span forty minutes. The fifth track is an instrumental. Every moment is transcendent.

The opener, Breadcrumb Trail, sets the precedent for the rest of the release with a series of riffs heavily reliant on natural harmonics and time manipulation. However, unlike some artists – and unfortunately, Stevie Ray Vaughan is the first to spring to mind – who used such techniques superfluously and self-indulgently, Slint’s music flows around the extra beats and discomfiting harmonies like an elegant stream around a promontory. Their music is also structurally unusual, though no less refined. The band eschewed and elided traditionally acceptable song structure in a Whitmanesque quest for form to match content.

Breadcrumb Trail describes a fleeting romance with a fortune teller, which is doomed never to mature past its awkwardly passionate infancy, and paralleled in the gracefully handled metaphor of a rollercoaster ride; Nosferatu Man yields a better vampire love story in under six minutes than any book or film that I’ve ever read or seen; Don, Aman provides an effective snapshot of the stress of social anxiety; the album’s highlight, Good Morning, Captain… tells the tragic tale of a shipwrecked captain, the sole survivor of a brutal storm, who should have gone down with his ship. The expert use of form and structure to mirror emotional thrust recalls that adept mountaineer, the ibex. Just as this horned goat has no right to perch precariously atop rocky outcrops as if they were the product of a foul genetic experiment conducted by a Dr Moreau character on a goat and a tight-rope-walker, Slint have no right to leave all accepted concepts of song structure behind them and still manage such a masterpiece. (It’s spelled ‘C-H-O-R-U-S’, guys.) There are many possible peaks and troughs in the landscape of artistic success, and the peak this album sits atop is a strange place indeed.

Having done nothing but praise Spiderland, I feel I must issue the warning that this is an album not for the faint of heart. If you’re the kind of person who listens to the accessible end of experimental rock – for the sake of argument, a Radiohead album, and thinks, ‘whoa, that’s pushing the envelope a little too far for me’, then this is not an album for you, either. But, its cult status as a masterstroke of guitar driven rock is well deserved.