tHEATER OF THE LIVING ARTS, PHILADELPHIA, PA: MARCH 21, 2005



The late eighties offered little more than an unconditional victory for America’s righteous indignation, all the while a superpower harboring an inferiority complex of devastating strength. When The Wall fell, new consumer markets awoke, purportedly hungering for the cheap plastic goods of the West and the namebrand exploitation that creates it. Thus the unwavering exportation of free trade realized its manifest destiny by beggaring Gorbachev into perestroika. But as American politics lost its polarizing animus, pop music developed its own, beguiling problems. With artists like Richard Marx, New Kids on The Block, and Martika dominating the charts and mixed format Top 40 radio, while independent stalwarts like The Replacements broke under major label pressure, there was no easily identifiable subculture, and its representatives were equally difficult to find—Pixies fandom didn’t hit my town for some time—which meant that the alarm clock might play Bobby Brown’s “Roni” several times before I finally fell asleep.

Such was post Cold War puberty in rural Pennsylvania: slow dancing to the ineffable “More Than Words;” drinking sodas while channeling Jesus Jones’ “Right Here Right Now” commercial Zeitgeist; and congratulating our parents for not starting the fire, an unnamable anthem whose vainglorious, relativistic thralldom remains as yet unsurpassed. Perhaps it was for the best that I didn’t hear Slint until now. Even if political time became simpler, cultural times sent mixed messages that my parents, like their parents before them, couldn’t understand; maybe, they thought, Tipper Gore had a point after all? My reward? Cassette tapes of Pocketful of Kryptonite and Eric Clapton’s Unplugged for Christmas, and every junior high dance ending with “Stairway to Heaven” or “Comfortably Numb.”

But the narrative edge cuts both ways: as a consumer I was prepared to make ostensibly alternative choices and, to seek out the once hard-to-find cultural goods I craved, meant discovering the shadowy outlets of independent music culture. Modern rock had already progressed toward its dialectic of defeat, meaning that the alternative moniker had made sufficient gains to be reconditioned as an effective sales tool, and while no moment may be considered pristine, it certainly seemed that way at the time: an unvarnished honesty prevailed, something represented by Steve Albini’s disciplined brutality toward the music industry and its proxies, disabusing fans and artists alike of the glamour promised by Nirvana and those other early successes with his paternalistic homilies. By abandoning those fantasies Michael Eisner brought into American homes every Sunday, the mythos of the American Dream would be repackaged with an edgy new look; Horatio Alger can wear thrift-store clothes too—in fact, he must on his steady ascent to the top! So as grunge took fashionable poverty to heights not seen since Malcolm McLaren invented it not twenty years before, the epicyclical momentum had already been co-opted, and Scott Stapp was just a messianic haircut away from using the Devil’s music to spread the Good Word.

Fourteen years after Spiderland, Slint reunited to curate All Tomorrow’s Parties, and announced an eighteen date tour to follow. For many this meant an opportunity to see a band that they never thought would, and likewise introduce themselves to many who’ve only experienced the music they inspired: if Slint’s albums are like Ur-texts of post-rock and emo-core then countless fans have wasted their time and energy on hapless imitations. But for all the celebration, it seemed an odd thing to more than one fan who found their stern idols committing an arena rock sin, something better left to the like of The Eagles; Crosby, Stills, & Nash; or Hall and Oates. Perhaps it was Mission of Burma’s reappearance that delimited those taboos, and their relative success expanded the contrary and perforated boundaries of abject cynicism: perhaps Orwell and Voltaire’s worldviews meet at the point of profit maximization? Whatever their rationale or inclination, this tour meant a certain redemption for anyone interested, a welcome reprieve for anyone who had missed out the first time, myself included.

As the audience was ushered past the bar it was interesting to see who came—there were teenagers who were toddlers when these albums were released; twenty-somethings who would’ve been precocious teenagers at the time; thirty-somethings collecting past remembrances for the foreseeable future. The subcultural barometer rose: Trout Mask Replica played before the band entered the stage; the indie rock equivalent of playing a song by The Who in a Hummer commercial. The production ran like the machinery in Chaplin’s Modern Times, with each startling innovation there came an accompanying difficulty each with its own crass, cross-marketed undertones, and suddenly the transparent nostalgia revealed itself in the hypermediated space—where the acute self-consciousness was rendered moot in violation of one of independent rock’s first principles. But what is selling out anymore anyway? Those “values” seem quaint today in retrospect; after all, wasn’t authenticity the product purchased and the music value added?



When Slint took the stage and the commercial transubstantiation took place, a post-coital acquiescence swept over the crowd. Beneath the veneer of calculated austerity, the once boisterous audience applauded, brimming with expectation—themselves an equally unlikely reunion of former outsiders collected to revel in some fleeting connection to youthful rebelliousness. As Todd Cook’s bass sounded its doom metal notes, the crowd convulsed as if relearning movements forgotten some time ago, forgoing the more typical noncommittal postures reserved for opening act Icy Demons. David Pajo, wearing a Black Sabbath Vol. 4 t-shirt, stood stage left, delicately lacquering the venue in an abstruse combination of feedback and harmony, while Britt Walford drummed elliptically, allowing each instrument to fill in the rest. As each song concluded, I couldn’t help but wonder if the emphasis should be on what had just happened, or the promise of what came next; this performance was simultaneously an exercise in hermeneutics and exegesis.

There was a melancholy that hung like a fog, and those seemingly unimportant contradictions came full circle—although the audience shouted its praises between songs during the tuning lulls, it wasn’t obvious that the band cared that they were there at all, never stopping to acknowledge their requests, unless it was to certify that a song wouldn’t be played. Should one have expected anything more or anything less; who could tell? For the faithful this was an effectual affirmation of the ineffectual detachment that characterizes Slint’s music, which is nonetheless filled with the turbulent happenings of everyday life, and a cold recounting of facts and a stunted, simulated metaphysics, all whispered beneath the igneous ferocity of the music itself. Brian McMahan’s vocals were mixed low, imitating Spiderland’s production values, which in turn imparted further mystery for the uninitiated. For a band so closed off from history, this seemed a strange occurrence—wouldn’t it almost seem sensible to shout bombastically, as if to put pretenders on notice? Better that the impersonal façade be maintained, lest maudlin sentimentality creep in and the uncomfortable emotional dampness grow unbearably familiar, undermining the post-straight-edge rectitude that serves as its moralistic basis.

In fact at times the performance seemed rote, too practiced and lacking in imagination for a band that went dormant in chrysalis. But the beauty remained in the sheer terror this music invoked at its conception—there is no easily identified hook apart from the raw expression of base human emotion. The modernist context refuted the pioneer populism of their forbears; this is apolitical music that unapologetically recuses itself from baser trials, and having capitalized on the rise of independent music when indie rock was still an industry category and not yet a genre of sloppy guitars, purportedly ironic lyrics, and all the radicalism that could be found in a Sheryl Crow record, Slint demonstrated their discipline in praxis and not mere rhetoric, a sentimental education for those reminiscing those seemingly purer times, when indie rock struggled for recognition and critical success wasn’t a fait accompli.

What set this apart was a measure of restraint even in succumbing to the impassioned fantasies of their dedicated fans—there were no embarrassing improvised moments in the name of creative growth, no silly stage banter that when left to chance might somehow cheapen the experience, or somehow tarnish their legacy, or betray their indeterminant motivation for reuniting—instead, all of the risks were contained in the music itself, which before bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Mogwai would wreak their own havoc on the creative aspirations of those who heard them, baffled critics and spawned subgenres all its own. In spite of their precision and the clockwork tempo of their set (or perhaps because of those things), when Slint departed the stage, sweaty from the hot green and red lights that haphazardly lit them during the unremitting darkness, their gracious thank yous seemed somehow more genuine than the tossed off goodbyes of more familiar acts, and, once withdrawn, the feeling that you’ve seen a dissipating mirage vanish considerably more confounding.


By: J T. Ramsay
Published on: 2005-03-28
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