While you’d never know it from listening to the undeniably pleasant but comparatively lightweight indie-pop that comprises this up-from-Louisville New York trio’s early records, Antietam possesses one of the most stealthy weapons in the post-punk sphere — the utterly transcendent guitar discourse of frontwoman Tara Key. Whether it was a trip down to the crossroads or merely a move to an apartment that allowed for more volume-intensive jam sessions, Antietam (named after the site of a pivotal Civil War battle) underwent a sea change sometime in the early ’90s, one that transformed it into a juggernaut capable of tearing the roof off any venue on any given night.
The two mid-’80s releases are marred by an overabundance of restraint: Just when Key and her bass-playing significant other Tim Harris start to approach lift-off, they seem to think better of it and remain content to chug along on terra firma. There’s nothing really wrong with either disc — save some sub-standard harmonizing that makes X sound like the New Christy Minstrels — but the songs are a bit too inconspicuous, too gentle to really grab the listener by the lapels. Burgoo tweaks the formula somewhat, focusing more attention on Key’s angular playing — no doubt a function of the sympathetic ears belonging to producers Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan (of Yo La Tengo) — and planing away the sound’s softer edges. It’s a big step in the right direction, but the band clearly needs to hook up with a more effective drummer than Charles Schultz (not the cartoonist, who could probably keep time as effectively) if it’s to be anything more than pleasant.
Key and Harris found a more sympathetic third member in drummer Josh Madell, whose playing imbues Everywhere Outside with a combination of freeform restlessness and Cream-styled bottom-end vigor, both of which contrast nicely with Key’s increasingly complex songs. Although it’s a quantum leap forward in terms of both storm and stress, the self-produced album still doesn’t replicate the urgency of the trio’s live shows. The subsequent release, however, captures a particularly fine one: recorded at Antietam’s de facto home base, CBGB, Antietam Comes Alive! hits with the room-spinning displacement of a furious tequila buzz. The ropy guitar soloing that permeates the Dream Syndicate-styled instrumental “Track 13” lets Key set an ecstatic (in the spiritual sense) tone straightaway as she trance-ports the band through a 50-minute firewalk that reaches peak intensity on a cover of Patti Smith’s “Ask the Angels.” Truly revelatory.
Rope-a-Dope transfers a good bit of that assurance to the studio environment: the trio positively swaggers through the garage-rock prototype “Hands Down” (which gets an added dose of spunk from Kaplan’s crisp organ playing) and a cover of Dead Moon’s gnashing “Graveyard.” As borne out by songs like the gently psychedelic “Pine,” Key has settled into a wafting lower register that accentuates the spooky qualities of her voice; she’s also found a way to channel some of her manic onstage attack (as on the heady “What She Will”). An encouraging sign of things to come.
Although Harris and Madell play on both, there’s not a whit of Antietam’s explosiveness in evidence on Key’s solo albums — which is by no means a criticism. The bucolic ambience of Bourbon County (which also features cameos by Hubley and Kaplan, Rick Rizzo, Janet Beveridge Bean and Wink O’Bannon of Eleventh Dream Day and Sue Garner and Rick Brown of Run On) is steeped in old-school hippie-country values. The looseness of songs like “Jack of Hearts” and “Northern Star” replicates the innocence of a stoned campfire singalong to such a wonderful extent that it’s possible to overlook the indulgence of several formless instrumental numbers.
Ear and Echo is a more “serious” and fully realized set. Even when it seems as if you’re listening to a few drinking buddies killin’ some time (as on the gentle instrumental “All Lit Up”), the album belies a definite focus. It’s evident that the crew paid as much attention to sonic details- like Key’s accordion fillips on the airy “Breakin’ In” and Harris’ lovely cello shadings on “In Absinthe”-as to the beer list so lovingly detailed in the CD booklet. Ear and Echo is not the kind of album that seizes your attention, but it doesn’t take too long to seep into your consciousness.
Before their New York relocation, Key and Harris led Louisville’s Babylon Dance Band, an engagingly wound-up foursome that split the difference between brittle Dixie-funk and angular guitar whittlings that would have sounded at home in the Mission of Burma catalogue. The Matador disc, recorded after a decade-long hiatus, reveals the formula to have aged well. Lead vocalist Chip Nold has one of those urgent bellows that works best when he’s delivering monosyllabic spurts (as on “Bold Beginnings”) and drummer Sean Mulhall maintains a skittery pulse that emphasizes the pressurization of songs like “The Reckoning” and a cover of “Shake!” (a Kasenetz-Katz factory product originally recorded by the Shadows of Knight).