Better Days Will Haunt You
verything written on Chavez calls them loud, tumultuous, energetic; every review of their two albums, which stood as venerable label Matador’s top sellers of the 1990s before going inexplicably out of print, mentions the primal drumming of James Lo and the wailing, abrasive guitars of Matt Sweeney and Clay Tarver. And the band is loud. It is tumultuous. Lo’s drums do lead triremes through Hades and the guitars do blow and crack their cheeks. But Matador’s characteristically gorgeous reissue of Chavez’s entire output reveals that what made this band good—and they were awfully good—wasn’t anything loud, or anything chaotic; it was their grace, the spun molasses of their songs’ hearts buried beneath their stormy surface.
We’ve got two albums here, each occupying the bulk of its own CD, bookended by an EP, a single, and the remaining detritus of a career in indie rock. Matador’s otherwise magnificent packaging makes these divisions rather obscure; the uninitiated or the forgetful will have trouble discerning which song goes where. It’s possible, however—and it seems to be encouraged—to discard the band’s original divisions for a new system that simply treats the entirety of Chavez’s work as a single unit, beginning with 1994 single “Repeat the Ending” and continuing to the last track on 1996’s Ride the Fader (two tracks are appended after this, one from an old Matador compilation and one obligatory unreleased track, but neither is terribly important). Such a flatly approached chronology is a little heartbreaking: Chavez does not fade over time into justifiably terminated noise-rock scribbling but becomes better and better until they simply stop.
Which isn't to say that things don't open well. "Repeat This Ending" fades into earshot with the keening guitars and drawling vocals of a band that's been going to Dinosaur Jr. shows and the loping stomp of one that's been paying attention, and it's as good a summation of the first half of Chavez's career as you could ask. There's a hook here, but it's lazy and quiet and drowned in fuzz, as if the melody itself were preoccupied, and the roiling chorus comes briefly and infrequently enough for the song to act as the template for the paradoxically raucous lullabies in which Chavez dealt. For all the buzzsaw guitars and pounding drums, these aren't hard-rock songs, and never were— Chavez is more perfectly suited to headphones and lonely afternoons. Witness the wry drawl of "Break Up Your Band," or the percolating balladry of "Peeled Out Too Late": there's something almost melancholy here, beneath the New York fuzz.
For all its wistful charms, Gone Glimmering remains a clear second to Ride the Fader. Songs like “The Guard Attacks” and “Our Boys Will Shine Tonight” take Gone Glimmering’s bewildered heart and wrap it in more and defter hard-rock swaddling—the former plastering a messy stutter of a riff over a languorous, cooing vocal line; the latter bravely collecting all the trappings of a rock epic for the delivery of its dreamy chorus. Both songs put Sweeney and Tarver’s noisy ballet to expert use, but what makes these tracks is Scott Marshall’s bass, which ushers in the clamor of “The Guard Attacks” with a long and lugubrious tone, a drop of mercury, the mournful evacuation of a ketchup bottle. There’s a reediness to Chavez that’s quickly revealed as misleading—the heart of this band was its rhythm section, and Lo and Marshall’s rumble sustains Sweeney and Tarver’s messy treble throughout the songs’ most superficially dissonant passages. Ride the Fader contains a few more subdued songs than its predecessor, but it’s still best when the band’s natural gentleness is hidden beneath layers of violence.
Better Days Will Haunt You is simultaneously more and less exhaustive of a compilation than Matador’s justly lauded Pavement reissues. No live tracks, no Peel sessions, no ancient artifacts from the band’s basement—and it’s the right choice. Everyone’s heard Slanted and Enchanted; to make them buy it again you’ve got to do more than dress it up nice. What needed to be done with the neglected oeuvre of Chavez was simpler—take everything this band made, put it on two nice CDs, and write down the names of the songs. No more atonement for Matador’s past sins is required, or advised; fanboy detritus would only clutter this record and suffocate the already mistreated triumphs therein. The label’s sole nod to unnecessary completeness is the inclusion of a DVD, which contains one music video each from the two albums and a documentary that sadly but not surprisingly doesn’t manage to be more than the usual cautionary PSA about camcorder zoom functions—and contains, unless I’m mistaken, more footage of Guided By Voices than Chavez.
But forget that; that’s not why you should get this. If the conventional system—a single, an album, another single, another album—didn’t get this band lasting fame, then Better Days Will Haunt You, its liner notes and packaging museum-ready, should; it might indeed be best to forget about the old divisions and listen to this as a single record. A single record about noise, tumult, sound, and fury, but most of all about gentleness, calm, and subtlety. And a very good record besides.