Archers of Loaf - "Harnessed in Slums" (Vee Vee (Remastered))
Is there an album that lives and breathes, hell … embraces the nervous, greasy, dandruff-eating spirit of the 1990’s every-nerd more than Vee Vee? A cursory flip through the booklet accompanying the Merge reissue reminds us, in no uncertain terms, what homely times indeed these were. Looking at the crowd shots from the era, one sees things for pretty much how they were: a bunch of really anxious normal people in band t-shirts and baggy jeans watching a really anxious and extremely sweaty bunch of normal dudes flog some tunes like the headless horseman was chasing them. Which of course is what made the Archers great.
History has propped-up Icky Mettle, their debut, as the accepted must-have of their catalog, and a semi-classic of the era. As one of the aforementioned audience members though, I felt a little disenchanted. Both of that album’s standout cuts, (“Web In Front,” “Wrong”) had already been released as singles, setting the bar high for the full-length. Not that I didn’t still listen to the thing a million times that year, but nothing on it quite matched the kinetic spark of those two songs. Vee Vee however, felt like a different story from the get-go. Between the first two full-lengths, the band had toured hard, and released the turgid Greatest Of All Time EP, a raw, darker song suite that saw them striking out into untamed territories of aggression and restraint. That EP was appended to Merge’s Icky Mettle reissue a few months back, but it makes more sense here, as the preliminary move that Vee Vee would consummate. A moody, brooding tug-of-war between beauty and brutality, Vee Vee was the crystallization of everything this band did best.
The pop songs were a given by this point. The Loaf could crank out quasimoto’d guitar anthems like “Harnessed in Slums” or “Nevermind the Enemy” all day and still fit in a six-pack lunch. But it’s the unexpected touches — the wordless harmonies of album opener “Step Into The Light,” or the patient build and relatively elaborate construction of a song like “Let The Loser Melt” — that make Vee Vee work. This album feels more like an album. There’s a balance and flow that their other full-lengths lack: It’s impeccably sequenced, expanding and contracting as the band moved through Neil Young-ish slowburners, mangled marches and crazed post-grunge power moves.
But, oh, those power moves. The heavier songs here (“Fabricoh” and “Nostalgia” are particularly eviscerating) lend Vee Vee a heft, both aural and emotional, that few of their counterparts could so viscerally convey without getting into Jesus Lizard territory. They contribute to the overall bloodletting vibe of an album that seems bent on releasing the scattered, confused energy of a band conflicted with their place in the rapidly ascending indie underground.
Few albums of the era come off as painfully self-aware of themselves as Vee Vee — the references to shows, radio, guest lists, the underground, sound men, etc., pop up everywhere. The whole thing has a vaguely meta, “rock about rock” vibe, which can be shaky ground to make camp in. However, these themes hold up under the scrutiny of time and distance. Underdogs, underachievers and the underground are the building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll “us vs. them” mythos, and the Archers acknowledge their place in this lineage both directly and vaguely. However winking some of their scene-baiting rock references may be, the fact remains, they’re all over this record. Like someone you can’t stand but can’t stop talking about, the Archers wound up betraying just how deep their fascination was with a zeitgeist they so desperately wanted to hold at arm’s length. “Don’t Believe the Good News,” (the bonus cuts here more than justify a re-purchase) sums up the passive-aggressive slack anger of the era as well as anything — in the back row, dreaming of the front row.
As an accidental, definitive document of time and place, Vee Vee is up there with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, No Pocky For Kitty and the Polvo records, strong enough even to offset the hideous cover art (which incidentally, they somehow found a way to make more embarrassing than the original). For a band that struggled so openly with notions of cool, could it have really been any other way?