Archers of Loaf play the Triangle twice in May; they’re at Haw River Ballroom on May 11 and Kings on May 12. The re-release of Vee Vee is out now.
Underneath each local landscape, the curious abstraction known as “the scene” has several reliable traits: It’s bigger on the inside than the outside. Its perimeters of taste are informal but strictly patrolled. And it’s always something other people doa homogenous medium to hone one’s individuality against. But above alland this is axiomaticthe scene is fucked up. This condition is so pervasive as to be almost mystical, more like an ancient mummy curse than a social problem. It indicates an environment of rampant gossip, open jealousy, lopsided self-esteem, thwarted ambition and paranoid sensitivity to perceived slights.
Archers of Loaf diagnosed all of this localized glamour and squalor more critically than anyone else, at least until Minneapolis’ Lifter Puller came along. The scene was their tragicomic bête noire, and they regarded it with the anxious perplexity of outsiders even as they swiftly moved toward its center. Their particular scene was Chapel Hill in the 1990s; maybe you were there, man. But at a time when the mainstream record industry was errantly buying up the underground, Archers’ bad news resonated far beyond North Carolina.
Their music reflected a world of reflexive idol-killing, capricious judgments and deliberate insularity that was certainly caricatured but essentially true. They railed against an “us vs. them” mentality that could only turn on itself after running out of thems. You felt certain that you were on the side of the angels when you listened to Archers; it was a kind of negative absolution. And most of all, their blaring, hooky tunes sounded good compressed for college-rock airplay, as you can hear from the Bob Weston radio mix of “Harnessed in Slums” that appears on the bonus disc of Merge Records’ new Vee Vee reissue.
Originally released by Alias Records in 1995, Archers of Loaf’s second LP didn’t expand the territory they staked out on their surprisingly successful debut, Icky Mettle. Eric Bachmann still sang like Bruce Springsteen via Paul Westerberg, trussing a wounded croon to a mighty bellow. The overall gist was still the construction of indelibly catchy rock anthems from frazzled, pitchy noise; the textbook Archers of Loaf song sounds like an iron barge groaning and crashing at length, if a barge crash were something you could hum.
But where Icky Mettle felt like the work of a band that didn’t expect much attention from throwing their neuroses at the wall, Vee Vee felt like the same band after realizing that they had a unique sound that people liked. See, Archers were kind of obsessed with the concept of being washed up from the very beginningon their second record, at the height of their hype, it’s like they can’t stand waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Greatest of All Time,” which features the mob drowning of the world’s worst rock singer, is a remarkable display of self-immolation. The way the licks queasily sag and the bad contact buzzes in the background mark it as the aftermath of something, the set already coming apart around the actors. And on “Death in the Park,” when Bachmann sings, “Yes, I can put you on the guest list/ Of course, I can put you on the guest list,” we get the full measure of his frustration at being a big fish in a small pond, navigating wheels-within-wheels of status and influence. The tortured refrain of “rock it out” during “Fabricoh” makes it clear that this is guitar therapy.
Exasperated confusion is everywhere, as intensely infectious melodies are string-bent, palm-muted, tangled and scraped down to the raw nerves. Guitarists Bachmann and Eric Johnson resemble a sublimely mismatched crime-fighting team that Marvel Comics might’ve cooked up in the ’70sBoxing Bear and Drunk Ninja, if you will. Bachmann throws down clawed, hairy riffs. Meanwhile, the stumblingly agile Johnson tries to flay the meat from them, flicking bent throwing stars off the high parts of the guitar neck. Johnson also creates the half-wild, half-fussy embellishments that stick with you as strongly as Bachmann’s chord progressions, such as the little spider-scrambling run near the end of “Underdogs of Nipomo” and the single metallic chirp that sends “Harnessed in Slums” hurtling into its second half.
Listening to Merge’s reissue side by side with an original copy of Vee Vee, I’d like to say that you hear a big difference between them, but that would be a lie. Unless you own super hi-fi stereo equipment, the difference is minimal, and anyway, this is Archers, not Brian Wilson. The bonus disc of period singles, four-track demos and some unreleased errata contains nothing especially revelatory or essential, except for superfan completists and perhaps future historians.
No, this reissue is for old fans who don’t have Vee Vee in their collections anymore and new fans coming to bands like Archers of Loaf via their modern reunionsor via the spiritual apprenticeship of young up-and-comers like Surfer Blood and Yuck, who have revived the ’90s indie-rock sound but with a veneer of Internet-era, self-conscious professionalism. You can’t blame them. Archers’ perspective still feels relevant today, except now, the whole world is the scene. Poor kids!