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Archers of Loaf’s Eric Bachmann has never been bashful about being an asshole. In the band’s early days, he was fond of turning arguments into songs. “I do not think that you could like me anyway cause you are inferior to me,” is only one of the many jerky lines from the band’s debut, Icky Mettle. Callous, sure, but in ’93 the Archers were also a breath of fresh hot air. In terms of their economic and romantic ideologies (not to mention their appearance) these skinny guys from Chapel Hill couldn’t be more indie rock, but their music has always suggested a deep respect for the fist-pumping rewards of rocking furiously. Telling it how it is (“All I ever wanted was to be your spine”) requires balls, and that implied machismo must have come in handy playing angular punk in Southern dives back in the day.
Unwittingly or not, the Archers bring a working-class sensibility to challenging music, and I know plenty of indie-aesthetes who consider the band an acquired taste or just plain average. That’s a big part of their appeal. Finding more profundity in Pavement and Sonic Youth records than in relationships doesn’t make the Archers better than anyone elseby their measure, it just makes them normal. “Bottom-of-the-barrel indie rock” is what one of my colleagues calls the band, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Archers took it as high praise. White Trash Heroes isn’t just the name of their new album, it also sums up their aspirations.
The Archers’ populist streak has never been as apparent on their discs as it is in their live shows. ’95’s Vee Vee contains some of the best songs about freeloading friends, bad parties, sorry rock bands, and dysfunctional relationships ever recorded, but “Harnessed in Slums” was the only tune on it conventional enough to have a chance of getting the attention of radio programmers, which it didn’t. But in person you’d never guess that Bachmann is the sort to front a jazz band, Barry Black, on his days off. All of the Archers’ apparent pretentious tendenciesthe shifty rhythms, the coarse patches of din, the complicated discussions between the guitars, the belief that melody is only necessary if it fitsdisappear when you discover that this is clearly a band that cut its teeth playing parties at which the big joke was to yell for “Freebird.” Hell, that happened at their 9:30 Club gig just a few weeks back.
White Trash Heroes adds only a handful of worthy additions to the set list. The Archers are Southern rockers at heart, and with Uncle Tupelo producer Brian Paulson co-producing and Murmur knob-man Mitch Easter lending a hand in the mixing, it seemed possible that the band might finally fulfill its promise to envision Skynyrd as a part of Daydream Nation. Instead, this album marks the first time that the Archers have decided not to challenge the tastes of the lowest common denominator that they’ve always hoped was listening.
The Archers seem unfazed by the computer agetheir guitar sound has always had a bleeping quality to it. Still, it’s disappointing to hear the voices of robots coming from a band that once looked into the future and only saw the faces of a million average Joes. There’s a reason bassist Matt Gentling isn’t the Archers’ lead vocalist, and on “I.N.S.” he proves why; if he had anything to offer as a singer I doubt his vocals would’ve been juiced to resemble Trent Reznor’s. The occasional retreats from guitar rock don’t always fall flat; the synth in “Dead Red Eyes” is every bit as mournful as Bachmann’s lyric, and the electronic clatter that opens “One Slight Wrong Move” gives way to the guitars just when you want it to.
But Heroes’ primary failing has less to do with production than with how well- adjusted the Archers are starting to sound. Perhaps this is a symptom of age; encroaching adulthood has a way of making past passions seem absurd, and I’d bet that even the Archers don’t believe that power walking and singing for a lame band are as blasphemous as when they were compelled to damn each of those topics in song. But their commitment to their milieu, no matter how ridiculous, was traditionally what caused the Archers to sound so fascinatingly unhinged. There are moments on Heroes when the Archers come close to capturing that anarchy. On “Slick Tricks and Bright Lights,” the music seems to grow bigger and more unruly each time Bachmann sings, “I don’t understand how you got the upper hand on me”which is perfectly reasonable, given what Bachmann is trying to say. And this band knows as well as any that being reasonable isn’t the same thing as being honest. CP