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AND THEY WERE INTO MUSIC, FOR REAL: THE STORY OF SLINT

A lot else happened musically in that 1990-91 window... somehow Slint cut through all that clatter

Scott Tennant
Spiderland
(Continuum Books)

The serious music people at the college radio station circa 1991 broke into factions, the sensitive jangle-rock holdovers vs. the juggernaut-hungry pigfuck evangelists, but somehow all came together in the shadow of Slint when Spiderland appeared out of the dark waters of that quarry pictured on the cover. A lot else happened musically in that 1990-91 window:  Fear of a Black Planet, Nevermind, the second Morrissey album, cementing the death of the Smiths. The goddamned Pixies were everywhere. But somehow Slint cut through all that clatter, an amazing feat for a band that didn’t even exist anymore.

Scott Tennent, proprietor of the excellent music blog Pretty Goes with Pretty, does a great job illuminating the somewhat storyless story of this brief but influential group.  He points out the seeds  from Louisville, KY that conspired into Slint’s practice room fastidiousness as well as the leaves of this family tree as solidly as one wants out of fanboy music journalism, but where this book really shines is how the tenor of its prose matches the music, almost reverse engineering their sound from the telling the history, which came in very handy for this reviewer.

See, I was never into Slint. I was a Nick Cave and Marc Almond and Psychic TV enthusiast at the time, preferring preening, theatric exegesis over a group of mumbly dudes wanting to recreate a less flashy Rush in their basement laboratories. As maturation progressed, though,  I got into Tortoise, Gastr Del Sol, Stereolab, Palace Brothers and the whole Will Oldham identity franchise scheme. I was and am a post-rock fan without, until reading this book, the benefit of really getting my ears around the genre’s proto-band Slint.

Tennent casts the Slint story like their music; a carefully stacked array of conflicting influences. Muso technician David Pajo (his 1999 post Slint-album Live from a Shark Cage, released under the moniker Papa M, stands as one of this reviewers all-time favorite albums) is quoted midway through the book as saying “I’m really a mechanical player,” and “I like emotionless, machinelike playing. But Brian [McMahan] brought a more human feel to it.”  That quote captured the Slint of my repeated revisitation while devouring this short, tidy history. There is a discussion about how McMahan preferred to up pick his guitar while Pajo embraced the down-pick of his metal upbringing and tales of how the group would spend days in the practice room perfecting one little intricate change, a shift from one complicated time signature to another.

In Tennent’s telling, Slint happened out of an inability of its members to play well with others, and that friction livens up the story. One wild element is Sean "Rat" Garrison, Louisville scenester and vocalist for Maurice, one of the bands feeding into Slint’s complex genealogy.  On the differences between his musical outlook and that of Pajo and drummer Britt Walford: “I mean, goddammit, I don’t even like music dude! I don’t even like music that much, you know what I mean? To me it’s like being on a Viking Ship. I have come to fucking humiliate you with our band.” He continues “And they were into music, for real, and that was very huh? to me.” It only gets worse when the boys link up with Glenn Danzig for a season roadie-ing for Samhain, some of the funniest moments in the book.

Eschewing the stock macho rock posture, McMahan lays his mostly spoken lyrics lightly over the intricate web of guitar work that forms Slint, hesitant things that barely exist. Tennent does a good job sussing meaning out these filigreed tales of twentysomething prose, while highlighting the debt McMahan has to John Cale’s recitation in the Velvet Underground song “The Gift.”  

The best way to take in this tale, as with most of Continuum’s  33 1/3 series of short books about favorite/cult albums, is to source a copy of said album and play it a low volume while consuming the text. I did this at the laundromat, a perfect place for Slinting it up, a room of mechanistic purr competing with chatter and furtive characters succumbing to growing tension with each cycle. Similarly, Tennent and the band whose story he tells starts with a tangle of a story and ends up, folded, put away, ready to move on.  Everything clean.  It’s the only way to tell an important story that barely happened.

The 33 1/3 page about Spiderland.

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About the Author
Alex V. Cook,
Music Editor
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com (biography/all stories)

 

 

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