For Against were one of the best new American bands of the late ’80s, but that’s a secret the US new music public never discovered, possibly because the trio hails from the unlikely mecca of Lincoln, Nebraska. Although obviously influenced by the UK post-Joy Division sound, For Against add their own distinct ripple; singer Jeffrey Runnings’ frantic bass and Greg Hill’s charging drums are unusual for such atmospheric music. Yet all through Echelons, the echoed sound of guitarist Harry Dingman arouses a berserk fireworks show careening like a thousand power drills. Pin it to the non-stop rhythm section and Runnings’ boyishly sweet catchy pop voice, and For Against are a waterfall of sound. When the tempo slows down, they draw you in like a hypnotist, as on the tantalizing six-minute closer, “Broke My Back.”
December is a stunner, a high-water mark for UK-inspired American music. Dingman pulls out all the stops for a neo-psychedelic spiderweb of sound. Runnings’ bass lines are also more forceful, well supported by Hill’s Stewart Copeland-on-speed bashing, a pulsing drive marked by rapid cymbal rolls and floor tom flourishes. There’s greater scope, too, from the slow doorbell chime of “The Effect,” the moody, emotional collapse of the title track and the brave despair of “The Last Laugh” to the exciting arousal of “Clandestine High Holy” and “Stranded in Greenland.” A remarkable and ambitious effort.
In the Marshes is a 10-inch artifact of early demos. These six tracks bear little relation to For Against’s manic pop thrill (especially with Hill supplanted by a no-frills drum machine). Attempting a 4AD-style chamber atmosphere, For Against succeeds only twice, on the bitter “Purgatory Salesman” and the spindly “Amnesia.” The CD-only reissue adds alternate recordings of “Amnesia” and “Amen Yves.”
Few trios survive the defection of two members — guitarist Harry Dingman III and drummer Greg Hill left to form the Millions after the release of December — much less continue to prosper artistically, yet after one false start with a new lineup, Runnings replaced his flashy ex-bandmates with a more modest (but no less solid and powerful) pair: Gladstones guitarist Steven “Mave” Hinrichs and drummer Paul Engelhard.
Aperture doesn’t forgo the effects-laden, atmospheric, guitar-dominated pop that distinguished the band’s prior work, but uses that sound in a more mature way, supporting the riffs rather than stealing the show. With Runnings making a switch to guitar, he helps Hinrichs’ low-key shimmer, warmer tones and a glimmering, troubling tease/tickle replace Dingman’s soloist blitz. The resultant mood suits Runnings’ lyrics of loneliness (“Today, Today” is as forlorn and heartbroken — downright glum — as alternarock gets), longing, cheated desire, frustration and cynicism — all of it belied by his sweet, boyish voice. It’s not easy to make melancholy sparkle so, but Aperture is absolutely touching.
With Aperture‘s bassist gone, Runnings returned to his original instrument. Otherwise, Mason’s California Lunchroom doesn’t so much change the formula as toughen it, with faster tempos and a harder edge. On the gasket-blowing “Tagalong” and “Coursing,” Engelhard’s lightning-quick blasting around the toms adds chops and spark, while Hinrichs employs distortion and flangers. The poignantly fragile “Hindsight” returns the group to more familiar realms of regret and sorrow, an emotional onslaught held together by the penetrating melody and Runnings’ harrowing sincerity. Spellbinding.
With continued membership stability resulting in greater ease of craft between the three bandmates, Shelf Life makes it clearer than ever that For Against is in restless pursuit of — and thrillingly close to — a Platonic ideal of dreamy, post-punk pop. Runnings’ lyrics still contain some of the most understatedly memorable one-two punches in the field — “You don’t know what is right / You don’t know what is true / You don’t know, you don’t care / And that’s why I love you” (“Wintersong”), “I assume I have the time to waste / Another month of days / On someone who doesn’t really care about me anyway” (“Forever”) — and the singer’s utter lack of optimism is jarring as Hinrichs’ sparkling layers of Smiths-esque arpeggio and Engelhard’s propulsive eighth-notes fight to console him (“Starblind” abruptly yanks away the minor-key cobwebs of its intro). Runnings’ gloom would seem hyperbolic in the hands of any number of other frontmen, but his blunt admissions (“After gaining your attention / I’ve decided not to let you in”) paint the unsettling picture of a person who both fully understands his problems and is at a loss for how to move past them. Where the singer once attacked the corporate music world, “Starblind” and “Lost” take brief, cryptic shots at indie politics, sentiments perhaps overdue from a band so long underappreciated even by underground standards. “Lilacs” examines vanishing youth with a mixture of regret and relief; the languorous “Profile” is an effective revision of Mason‘s “Blow,” Engelhard’s switched-off snare accents and Runnings’ echo-laden, repetitive vocal embodying the band’s paradox of sorrowful beauty. The trio adds a new wrinkle by closing the album with a pair of tastefully chosen covers: East River Pipe’s “Times Square Go-Go Boy” and Tracey Thorn’s “Seascape.” While For Against may be getting too modest for its own good, Shelf Life is the band’s most purposeful statement of the ’90s.
With its longtime label having ceased operations, and having themselves all but retired from live performance, the trio was kept in limbo for a year after recording its next album. On Coalesced, For Against turns in its most jaw-dropping long-player, a simultaneous embrace and shedding of all that has come before. Under the production expertise of fellow Nebraskan Mike Mogis, Coalesced takes the band’s poignance to dizzying new heights, with newfound warmness and hope. Interpersonal tragedy and isolation still abound in the lyrics, but Runnings now sees light in the distance: “Nothing this bad could ever last,” he bravely opines in “So Long,” later admitting to a lost love in “Shelflife” (go figure!) that he hasn’t “felt so free in such a long time.” The band takes a cue from this sentiment, breaking past pop constrictions with more expansive arrangements, some pushing the seven-minute mark. In the title track, a verse-chorus structure ranking with any of the band’s best is ends with a three-minute instrumental coda, a plaintive, repeated guitar figure and matter-of-fact cymbal stops and crashes saying as much as any lyrics ever could. Boldly, the album ends on the purely instrumental “Love You,” driving home the ensemble’s strengthened conviction in aurally-communicated emotion. This masterstroke only makes the band’s shyness from the live setting all the more tragic.
Guitarist Mave Hinrichs moved away from For Against’s home base of Nebraska following the completion of Coalesced, effectively leaving the band and presumably bringing its career to a halt. With Words on Music beginning the gradual process of reissuing the band’s back catalogue, however, original guitarist Harry Dingman III made a sudden return to the fold in 2004. For Against resumed writing material and performing live, though their appearances have remained scant.