Slint – Spiderland (Deluxe Reissue)
by Chad Jewett
Spiderland, the sole full-length EP from Louisville post-everything quartet Slint, has reached a rarified acme in the twenty-three years since its initial release on Touch and Go Records. Nowadays you can hear its oblique deconstructions of post-hardcore, punk, math rock, and minimalist art music pocking the time-line of indie rock’s past two decades. The knotty brain-teasers of Owls and Joan of Arc; the looming dramatics of Hoover and Lungfish (“Nosferatu Man”); the ornate algebra of Pele and June of 44 (“Washer”); the narrative bent of The Van Pelt (“Good Morning, Captain”); the general fussy precision of Midwestern emo (“Breadcrumb Trail”) – it’s not only possible to draw this all back to Spiderland; it’s also kind of hard not to. The album is as important as Repeater, and Meat is Murder, and Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, and End On End, and Chairs Missing. You hear that quilt of dancing harmonics and spangling guitars at the beginning of “Breadcrumb Trail” and file it with the rusted bass of “Waiting Room” and the hazy chords of “Summer Babe” – these are opening passages that double as history. You can listen to the gorgeous, trickling spaciousness of “Breadcrumb Trail” or the painterly, post-rock surfaces of “For Dinner…” and simply marvel at the inventiveness, at the “Big Bang” quality of what this quartet of Kentucky youths managed to come up with.
Spiderland can also be understood as an early landmark in the winding, reedy, math-damaged aesthetic with which we still associate the indie-rock Midwest. Members of Slint would go on to play with Chicago post-rock greats Tortoise; others would form the minimalist The For Carnation. But there is also a wider map to be traced beyond the later discographies of Slint members. Indeed, it’s an interesting trick of fate that both Spiderland and American Football have reached such a critical mass of influence in 2014 that both were reissued without any real connection to an anniversary. It’s simply that their place in contemporary indie, emo, and hardcore has hit an apex that cannot be ignored. Indeed, in limning a terrain of the post-hardcore Midwest, Slint is the David Lynch to American Football’s pre-rotoscoped Richard Linklater. Both offer stylized slices of Middle American life; Slint’s are uncanny and eerie; American Football’s are nostalgic and elemental. American Football’s line-drawn guitars arrived in sepia major keys; Slint’s are almost all nervy minors. American Football hand us photo albums. Slint gave us funhouse mirrors.
In a broader sense, Spiderland is a gorgeous dispatch of American boredom. “Nosferatu Man” might be set in Gothic Europe, but you can smell the video rental store dust that coats the song (indeed, bassist Todd Brasher would go on to open a video store). “Nosferatu,” like the rest of the album, is as much about four curious kids finding Murnau and German Expressionism on basement VCRs as anything, making the song simply an object lesson in the album’s theme of Midwestern boredom. We keep coming back to Slint’s one LP because we can hear four adventurous artists creating something indelible out of thin air, because we can hear intrepid wondering dug into the grooves. Elsewhere, “Breadcrumb Trail” and “Don, Aman” are built from the kind of pass-time storytelling that small towns are made of. Like the album itself, right down to its resourceful cover-photo, the narratives of Spiderland reflect a rural and suburban sensibility of making the most out of what surrounds you.
Which is all to say that Spiderland was in dire need of this kind of reissue (now in a more affordable form following Touch and Go’s more luxe initial package), especially in a mini-era that has seen similar Hall-of-Fame reissue entries for American Football, American Analog Set, Jawbreaker, and Superchunk. The remaster itself is welcome. This cut of Slint’s cerebral classic could perhaps be more accurately described as “widened” and “clarified” rather than necessarily “loudened,” the change we tend to associate with remastering (though it has been given a boost). Ostensibly, Spiderland has been excavated out from beneath the layer of proto-digital, first-generation CD dust (circa 1989 Beatles’ CDs have similar issues) with which listeners had to deal when listening to the album. Though the record has been in circulation on vinyl off-and-on for the entirety of its twenty-three years, this new 180-gram edition is definitive (and, in its green variant, collector’s fodder).
The reissue is accompanied by a documentary direct by Lance Bangs, who you either know as a wonderful documentarian or the guy who threw up in Jackass 3D. The film, titled Breadcrumb Trails (a canny name for a band with this much mythology and word-of-mouth legend), suits the album wonderfully by paying as close attention to the unique Midwestern/Southern milieu of Louisville as it does to the Slint’s music. Members of the band and its extended family are filmed in backyards, cafes, living rooms, and green exteriors, offering snapshots of the album’s place. There is a scene devoted to Rose Island Road, a winding, bucolic road in Louisville that ended up on the cover of Slint’s first EP – the kind of geographic specificity that makes records like Spiderland last. Drummer Britt Walford is filmed in front of a chipping, white-washed door, symbolic of the lived-in quality of both the band and its home. The history of American indie rock is the history of just such locales – second cities, college towns, nowhere’s. The documentary is reflective of that hometown intimacy. The fact that Breadcrumb Trails doesn’t have a terrible lot to say about the music of Slint and Spiderland is perhaps only right, since all we’ve had is the music up until now (with the exception of Scott Tennent‘s excellent 33 1/3 volume on the album).
At times, the oral-history narratives of Breadcrumb Trails border on comedy; you could watch the film as a mockumentary about a brainy, Quixotic indie band and laugh a lot. At one point, the legendary punk producer and ornery provocateur Steve Albini describes a request from the band to make their bass-drum sound like “slapping a ham.” That Albini conveys this information with a straight face only makes it funnier. There is equal charm in Bangs’ interviews with Walford’s parents, who are adorably supportive and amused about the whole thing, including the tons of mail that was sent to their house after the band listed their address on the back of Spiderland. A story about Walford’s father picking out the tune of a Slint song on piano as the band practiced in the basement is especially endearing.
That sense of family pervades throughout the documentary, the large booklet that accompanies the reissue, and Will Oldham’s introductory note. The entire thing, like the best reissues, adds up to a moving capture of a specific time and place, like a dug-up time capsule. It remains incredible just how much weight six songs and forty minutes can carry, or to what proportions the work of four thoughtful young people can expand.