I drove a thousand miles to hear one song. Poetic, huh?
This statement is, of course, at best a wild exaggeration and, at worst, an outright lie. I drove the thousand miles from Denver to Chicago for the Pitchfork Music Festival, where I heard hundreds of other songs. However, when deciding whether or not to attend this event, one specific songwriting group was most instrumental in my decision, and my affinity for this group is largely owed to just one song––Slint.
The Pitchfork Festival planners collaborated with the British organization All Tomorrow’s Parties to stage a night of concerts dubbed “Don’t Look Back,” a series of legendary bands played their most important albums live, in their entirety.
Slint was among the three-act line-up of “Don’t Look Back” on Friday night, playing before GZA’s Liquid Swords and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Slint is known as a pioneer in the post-rock genre, a form that emphasizes experimentation with traditional rock instruments. The album that established Slint’s reputation is 1991’s Spiderland, their performance piece at Pitchfork.
Spiderland contains only six tracks, but all are five to nine minutes long. Each song possesses a unique character while still expressing Slint’s innovative style. The vocals are always whispers or screams, spoken rather than sung; the lyrics take the form of poetic stories, never rhyming but immaculately paced. The subjects of the songs are dark, ranging from a vortex at a carnival to a vampire story to the anguish of social anxiety.
More important than these elements, though, is Slint’s instrumental work. Their guitars are spare and ruthlessly deliberate. Each note, shriek, and drone is executed with masterful precision, peaking or fading at only the most perfect moment. Their drums are sharp and clear, each beat punctuating or elevating the music. The overall effect of this methodical construction is a set of incredibly tight songs. Their entire sound hangs on the assumption of flawless execution, and the achievement of this perfection is what makes Spiderland such a classic.
However, I didn’t say that I drove a thousand miles for one album. In my haste to craft a sensationalistic opening line, I made clear that one song was the impetus for my travel. After praising Spiderland so effusively, this undoubtedly seems odd, since I clearly maintain a passion for the entire work, not just one component of it. This line of inquiry conveniently leads to the true genius of Spiderland: the build-up.
The build-up is present, in some form or another, in each of Spiderland’s six songs. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as in the opening track “Breadcrumb Trail,” when, out of the sparse soundscape, the guitars kick into a wail and “singer” Brian McMahan screeches “Creeping up into the SKYYYY!” In other tracks, the build-up is more subtle, such as in “Don, Aman,” where twin guitars, otherwise unaccompanied, grow from a faint hum to a powerful buzz so gradually that one hardly notices the volume increase at all, trapped in the sound like the proverbial frog in its slowly heating pot.
The build-up also exists across the structure of the entire album. The first song begins with a single guitar playing three escalating notes quietly. From there, the progression is nonlinear, with the quieter songs occupying the third, fourth, and fifth tracks on record. But these songs are a long calm before an unbelievable storm. Each track pulls the listener inextricably towards the last song, the climactic finale, “Good Morning, Captain.” This is the song I came to see because, quite simply, I think it’s the best song in the world.
Annoyingly, while waiting for the gates of Union Park, we could hear Slint tuning up. It’s a testament to how long they’ve been apart, besides a brief reunion tour a year ago, that they checked their instruments by playing a good chunk of several songs off Spiderland. They must not remember anything else, certainly nothing from their debut album, 1989’s Tweez. Though I joked that our day had been ruined, I was still ecstatic to get a front row spot to see the concert.
For making some of the nerdiest, most obsessive music in recent memory, the members of Slint actually looked surprisingly cool. McMahan had a short, jock-like haircut, and a bit of a potbelly, a rare sight in indie rock. Renowned Guitarist David Pajo is one of the very few genuinely good-looking men making independent music, with long, dark hair and a physique indicative of actual exercise. Tragically, drummer Britt Walford, just looked like a pale, scrawny nerd.
Their performance, for the first five songs, was flawless. It was nearly indistinguishable from the album itself. To see Slint perform such intricate music so well after 16 years was truly a sight to behold. Every little nuance of Spiderland was present, but with the immediacy and intimacy of a live performance. At the end of “Don, Aman,” I could hear the electric guitar still strumming, although it had been faded from the speakers. It’s those little quirks that I will savor for years to come, glad that I came so far for such a silly reason.
“Good Morning, Captian,” though, was not album-perfect. The opening guitar hook sounded sharp, but the throbbing bass-line was mixed louder and grittier than its recorded counterpart. At times, McMahan’s whispers about a stranded sailor were completely inaudible. It seems that the complexity of the song, the centerpiece of Spiderland, was too much to reproduce in its original glory.
But it didn’t matter. Though not identical to the original, as the earlier tracks were, “Good Morning, Captain” was still easily the highlight of their set. The build-up was flawlessly, every fiber of the song drawing towards its desperate, soul-rending cry “I miss you!” Angst is such a dirty word in modern music, but on this song, Slint used it to its fullest potential. It was chilling to witness such an iconic moment in music, performed to near perfection.
Slint was one of those bands that I had given up hope of ever seeing, but this retrospective event brought them back in such great form that the door now seems open for many classic albums to once again have their spot in the sun. Who knows if “Don’t Look Back” will continue next year, but Slint has restored my faith that old bands can indeed successfully resurrect themselves.
Fingers crossed for Pavement next year.