Over the years, this Seattle (originally from Missoula, Montana and descended from a band called Ein Heit) band has explored some of the headier reaches of post-punk, formulating a tense, austere sound — nurtured by fellow Montana expatriate Steve Albini, who has recorded most of Silkworm’s albums — that falls roughly halfway between the Wedding Present and Dream Syndicate. Recent releases have seen a shedding of some of the vestigial gloom of the self-distributed cassettes — put on tape not long after the band’s rise from the ashes of the goth-pop combo Einheit — and a firm embrace of the more nuanced aspects of spatially challenging guitar rock.
On its “official” debut, L’ajre, the quartet seems to spend an undue amount of time making a list — and checking it twice — of the components it wants to include. Martial, Mission of Burma rhythms? Check. Feedback dappling? Right. Smirking observation? Double check, judging by the tongue-through-cheek stance of songs like “Shithead.” The thing is, amidst all the cross-referencing, guitarists Andy Cohen and Joel Phelps manage to work up a noise-mongering head of steam with minimal slippage into Sonic Youth tribute. Promising, if less than distinctive.
In the West cuts down substantially on the spectrum of crib notes, letting three subtly different songwriting voices — some of the better ideas seem to come from bassist/vocalist Tim Midgett — provide a sense of anticipation for what might be lurking around the next corner. Midgett’s loping basslines — one part post-funk, one part underwater wooze — give an intangible propulsion to spare tracks like “Garden City Blues” (which also draws some charm from drummer Michael Dahlquist’s inexact percussive spurts). When the aggro level is raised too high (as on “Incanduce” and the overly Burma-like “Pilot”), Silkworm grows awfully shrill. But as a whole, the exquisitely spacious album’s deep rhythmic caverns invite and demand casual lingering.
Although it still emphasizes snap and crackle over pop, Libertine is slightly more immediate than its predecessors. Midgett’s beefed-up Europop and Cohen’s scree-infused post-psychedelia don’t exactly mesh, making for a slightly schizy feel, but it’s a good thing that the Pynchon-via-(Tom) Verlaine “There Is a Party in Warsaw Tonight” and the ether-reaching “Written on the Wind” co-exist peacefully without trying to bridge the gap for consistency’s sake. Phelps left the group (amicably) at this point, and the remaining trio filled time with the four-song The Marco Collins Sessions EP (a radio broadcast packaged in a hilarious Peel Sessions parody sleeve promising other editions from bands like Zip Code Rapists, Blodwyn Pig and the Vinnie Vincent Invasion). The contents, while not nearly as interesting as that, do include a nice version of “Scruffy Tumor,” a song which originally appeared on …his absence is a blessing.
The pared-down three-piece Silkworm cuts a very different figure, as evidenced by the sprawling Firewater. Cohen takes advantage of the spartan surroundings in order to launch some monumentally trebly, barely-in-control solos like those that riddle “Drag the River” and “Slow Hands.” Oddly enough, while Phelps provided the most melancholy songs on earlier albums, Firewater may well be the most downbeat Silkworm set yet — particularly the achy-breaky “Tarnished Angel” and “Miracle Mile,” a why-bother dismissal of modern-day rock hepcats.
Phelps’ solo debut is a dark, melancholy-dappled set characterized by the same introspection that marked his contributions to Silkworm. While it’s a bit restrained overall — he spends a good bit of the album murmuring through clenched teeth — Warm Springs Night should secure a spot in any insomniac’s wee hours listening pile.