The word is traction. Silkworm and the Glands are indie rock to the gut: Both could have sprung out of the fertile crescent in Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted where Stephen Malkmus sings, “lies and betrayals, fruit-covered nails, electricity and lust.” But there they diverge. Glands songs have multiple harmonies, keyboards fleshing out guitar, catchy choruses, overt musical lifts like “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” and lyrics that align. Silkworm songs are declaimed as much as sung, by one of two vocalists who even aficionados have trouble telling apart. They only recently allowed small chunka-chunks of keyboard after years as a guitar-bass-drums outfit engineered with Steve Albini’s usual maximum sonic separation—heightened by the band’s belabored tempos. Memorable melodies are rare, lyrics either rueful mock-gonzo or imagistic soup. The sound is too distinctively stiff-necked to make you think of the past, though one of Lifestyle‘s reasons to believe is a Mekons-caliber reenchantment of the Faces’ “Ooh La La.”
Literary Marxist Fredric Jameson distinguished parody from pastiche, preferring parody because it requires more struggle. The Glands, whose well-stuffed press kit has a staggering comparisons-to-other-bands-per-column-inch ratio (let me add “sings like a less croaky Ira Kaplan” to the checklist), would be pastiche. But indie is always a haul—just ask frontman Ross Shapiro, a 37-year-old who’s lived in Athens, Georgia, since 1981 and only got noticed this year, with a Glands’ second album that revolves on crises of adulthood and commitment he maybe should have worked out during Reagan’s second term. At the Knitting Factory November 18, his younger band was poppy and a touch jammy. I can’t wax mythical about the way “Swim” bobs as it suburbanizes “Hey Joe,” or the droll chiming of “Lovetown,” but why refuse a gift that keeps on giving? Musicianly without being stuffy about it, this is high caliber do-do-do-do-do.
Silkworm by contrast are wont to shoot off five power chords, stop, then remember they’ve got a song to get to. Drummer Michael Dahlquist doesn’t drive bassist Tim Midgett so much as settle in, heavily reverberant, alongside. Andy Cohen plays Neil Young guitar and other varieties of comfort food. They’ve made a lot of albums since 1992—including one that re-created their earlier Missoula, Montana, band, Ein Heit—but they sound like they’ve made even more. It’s been a journey and a half. Originally, there were three vocalists—after Libertine they kicked out Joel Phelps, a more mystical, Will Oldham-ish type than the hard-boiled Cohen and Midgett. Some fans never forgave them. Signed to Matador and looking like comers in 1996, they turned their backs on unblushing guitar explosions with Developer. Some fans never forgave them—and we’re not talking a huge base here. Resurrected by the market-impervious Touch and Go, they’ve released two fine albums (and moonlighted with Malkmus in the Crust Brothers) while Cohen attends law school in Chicago and Midgett studies electrical engineering in Seattle.
So, parody. Silkworm often laugh at who they are, their small-town past and art’s-sake obsessions, but they’re in my permanent collection because of their complete refusal to belittle themselves. They won’t concentrate on slo-core or some other underground conceit, posture as depressive, menacing, experimental, or cute. Their bearing is that of a great band, actors in consequential history, even if very few take the message to heart. I mean, when “Contempt” starts Lifestyle, the thrill isn’t only how the postpunk refrain “I’ll keep away from you/you keep away from me” registers as a somber benediction, with Silkworm now adding Procol Harum keyboard over that lumbering beat (I should mention that they rev up sometimes, and rarely play softly). It’s that Cohen has chosen to insert himself partly into the Godard film—as Brigitte Bardot, of course.
For a band that’s never avoided a few flat tires, Lifestyle is unusually cohesive: “Slave Wages” dissolves bleakness with guitar that summons the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Treat the New Guy Right” sneaks in a female backing vocalist. When Midgett sings, “new wave bliss under patchy fog tonight,” remembering 1984, and Cohen stands on the Higgins Bridge, it’s Missoula as a moonlight mile in Winesburg, Ohio. Dahlquist’s drumming is the foam on the Pavementy “Yrweb,” and he gets in his own wheedling lick, “Around the Outline.” The only solo guitar burst sets up an elegiac “That’s Entertainment,” while some Stones honky-tonk prompts Midgett to shout, “I’ll eat anything that’s cooked.”
Silkworm wouldn’t relish the comparison, but Lifestyle reminds me of Pearl Jam’s underappreciated Yield—rock made to honor a band’s sense of their own standards. But how long can this band remain so inner-directed? Midgett wrote the following in 1997, with typically modulated hubris: “I can’t say for sure if Silkworm will have disintegrated by the time you read this or ride through the years on iron horses like AC/DC, the Stones, Bon Jovi. We aren’t ones to hope we die before we get old; neither are we likely to keep churning out records just for the sake of it. I suppose your guess is as good as mine. Regardless of our fate, I do think that, between the music on this collection and the other records we have to our credit, we have carved out a niche for ourselves. Tiny, perhaps.”