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On Bedhead, box sets, and the beauty of bookends

The new box set Bedhead 1992-1998 looks like a tombstone, with those words letter-pressed into a light gray cardboard box, as if they’ve been worn away by years of age. It’s fitting for the Texas band, which was always unassuming, uninterested in calling attention to itself, concerned with weighty matters, and utterly grave. Like the music inside, the box requires you to meet it more than halfway, to get right up close in order to fully appreciate its nuance.

Though hardly a commercial powerhouse in its day, Bedhead is worthy of the solemn box-set treatment. (And no one’s doing that better these days than Numero Group, which just released 1992-1998 on both vinyl and CD.) In addition to all the music included here—three impeccable full-length albums and a bonus disc of non-album tracks—there’s a 25,000-word essay that dives deep into the lyrics and recording sessions for each album. It’s so nuanced that it kind of renders any review of the set a bit moot, so I’ll just say this: Fans of ’90s indie rock who haven’t heard of the band would be wise to check it out.

And maybe that’s a good thing, because rather than write too much about Bedhead’s music, I want to write about the experience of being a Bedhead fan during the years they were making music, and a little about box sets in general. People love to talk about how their favorite band feels like an open secret, but Bedhead felt like an actual secret—an idea abetted by its mysterious packaging (neutral tones, little text, no photos of the players) and its hypnotic songs, whose words deal with loneliness, fear, existence, and occasionally joy, and which require a certain patience to fully connect with.

Which isn’t to say Bedhead wasn’t also immediately likable: Anyone with a general appreciation of music could connect with one aspect or another, whether the three meticulously layered guitars or the careful build and release of the compositions. But in the nascent Internet era, a band that wasn’t interested in self-promotion needed acolytes to spread the word, and Bedhead inspired freelance evangelists (myself included) like no band I’d ever seen. Their music was spoken of in hyperbolic whispers by people who lived and breathed it. I remember a piece on an email group populated mostly by musicians and music critics, written by Tim Midyett of the band Silkworm, that essentially declared the band the pinnacle of modern music: “They are the sole band with whom I am familiar who create music that is both beautiful and perfect.”

Statements like that were not uncommon, which must have been a little weird for the band. Bedhead began making inward-looking music in the smallish city of Wichita Falls, Texas, the brainchild of brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane. They played together for years in various permutations before hitting on the sound that would populate their first album, 1994’s WhatFunLifeWas. And while the sounds and words were both layered and meticulously crafted, the brothers surely couldn’t have imagined that such personal music would inspire such intense passion in a select few.

I don’t remember exactly how I got in touch with them—probably a fan email—but I ended up promoting a couple of Bedhead shows in Milwaukee in the mid-’90s, and it felt like an important mission to put bodies in front of them while they played. I worked at a record store at the time—as many Bedhead boosters probably did—and told everyone who would listen that they needed to come to the show. I think 50 people came, and I think 40 of them thanked me on the way out for badgering them into going. They bought records; they proselytized too.

It reminds me of the old quote attributed to Brian Eno about The Velvet Underground—that only 30,000 people bought their first record, but every single one started a band. Bedhead’s influence, though, like its music, has been more quietly insinuating. You can hear it in the layers of bands that took the whole alternative thing to a bigger place not long after: Guys like Ben Gibbard and Isaac Brock are documented fans.

Unlike The Velvet Underground, Bedhead wasn’t destined for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. But this beautiful box set is a good start toward getting a great, important band more recognition. It reminds me of two other boxes that have a special place on my shelf: the self-titled Galaxie 500 set—which resurrected the band’s legend after its singer found success with Luna—and Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree, which built the British singer-songwriter’s legend up and up long after he died. What these three sets have in common (besides containing exactly four CDs each) is that they’re essentially complete, containing almost every song each artist released during a short period of time. They offer a way to look at a career in total, to hold it in your hands all at once and marvel at how close to perfection it got.

And while it’s silly to say “never” about any reunion these days, the prospect of Bedhead getting back together seems remote. A reunion is something the Kadane brothers would probably find too gauche to consider, an idea out of step with its tendencies toward perfectionism. Besides, this essential box set acknowledges that Bedhead belongs to a specific time: 1992-1998. It’s chiseled right there on the front, inviting and rewarding a closer look.