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Ragged But Right 

Archers of Loaf

Vee Vee


In the few weeks since its release, the Archers of Loaf's excellent second album, Vee Vee, has sold a whopping 30,000 copies. That doesn't sound like much, but it's as many copies as their equally good first album, Icky Mettle, sold in a year and a half. This groundswell appears to have materialized out of nowhere, but nobody would ever claim, "I have seen the future of rock 'n' roll, and its name is Loaf." In a way the opposite is closer to the truth. Since their first single, "Web in Front," in May of '93, the band's music has been firmly rooted in a tradition that has always appealed to underground music fans. Call it the yoking of kinetic pop melodies to chaotic rock 'n' roll noise.

In the tradition's standard formula the singer alternates fast and basic rock 'n' roll raves with tunes so melodic you can hum along the first time you hear them. The band's job is to send these vocals tumbling into a current of anarchic guitars, alternating the tidal waves of brittle leads and distorted chords with occasional respites of sweet counterpoint so you can gulp some air. When executed well these layered contrasts can work each other into a pitch of frenzied excitement. And no one in years has executed that tradition better than these four earnest young losers out of North Carolina. Except, on occasion, those five or six snide young losers out of Southern California called Pavement, to whom the Archers are most frequently compared.

It's an undeniable pairing: play Pavement's recently released third album, Wowee Zowee, alongside Vee Vee and you'll find a similarity that runs much deeper than the silly album titles. Despite the groups' ever-increasing musical skills, both of these impressive new albums are still thoroughly edgy and unkempt. At one extreme they both contain enough ugly stompers to prove each band's punk credentials; at the other there are enough oddball ditties to throw off the thrash freaks faster than they can bum-rush the stage. And everywhere there's a lo-fi ethos that embraces false starts, tape breakdowns, and inscrutable lyrics as part of the entropy and miscommunication that define the cosmos.

Most important, both albums demonstrate an obsessive ambivalence about rock 'n' roll itself. But that's also where the difference begins. Wowee Zowee retreats into an artiness that's always private no matter how compelling; Pavement hedge their bets about rock 'n' roll by taking refuge behind their irony and anomie. The Archers, meanwhile, dive headlong into an act of belief by continuing to rock as hard as they know how. For example, there's a line in Pavement's "garbled and breezy" liner notes that says "Shadow me kizza, as in keep away the light," whereas the Archers open their album by repeating over and over: "Step into the light / So tired of being in the dark and all alone."

Vee Vee is full of lines like that--all-purpose metaphors about the underground and its bands that are irresistibly quotable. "We're running jokes running dry"; "The underground is overcrowded"; "Always knowing what we don't want"; "We're clinging to fresh, new mistakes"; "All of my friends have floated away / Connecting the valley to the astral plane." Whatever they may mean, these lines can sound as great as Kurt Cobain's deepest Rorschach rants. And the music is so bracing--especially on the first two-thirds of the album--that it makes these statements an "affirmation in the negative," as I think Robert Christgau once said about the Clash. For contrast, the closing song contains this: "Underachievers / Attack at your leisure / Hoist up your guitars / And make them all believers." The tune for that one is purposefully slight, silly, and about as anthemic as "I'm a little teapot / Short and stout."

What the Archers have done on Vee Vee is bring the noise-pop tradition back to a point before an innocent indie-rock past turned into a jaded alternative-rock present. The most recent and powerful embodiment of this innocent past was the Replacements, indie rock's most famous fuckups and a band that the Archers name in interviews as their musical model. In concert, it's impressive how neatly the two lineups match. Standing in for the Replacements' Tommy Stinson, Bob Stinson, and Chris Mars are the Archers' energetic and amiable bassist Matt Gentling, the deranged lead guitarist Eric Johnson (who's actually a little less deranged than the late Bob Stinson, but he makes up a little with his moodiness), and the dependable drummer Mark Price, respectively. And for the Replacements' front man Paul Westerberg, the Archers have Eric Bachmann, an equally accomplished rhythm guitarist, if a rougher vocalist, who projects down to the floor instead of up to the rafters. Put them all together, and there are moments when the Archers' yearning cadences--the tone of an impassioned conversation about to collapse into desperate emotion--is a near mirror of what the Replacements achieved a decade earlier.

The Archers, though, already attract a more diverse crowd than the Replacements ever assembled in one barroom, and they demonstrate a will to hold their audience together that the Replacements never sought. Moreover, they can pull a crowd back together with their loose and hard energy even when that audience threatens to break apart from internal tension, as it did at a recent show I caught (where a few skinhead thugs were looking for a fight). Positive, uncompromising, realistic--they might not be the future of rock 'n' roll, but maybe they should be.

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