Archers Of Loaf had the ill fortune to arrive at a time when noisy, eccentric indie-rock bands could actually get played on commercial radio—which may not sound like a problem, except that potential mass-media exposure brings a certain measure of expectation, and Archers Of Loaf sometimes seemed frazzled by the scrutiny. Frontman Eric Bachmann wrote more than a few songs about what it meant to be “underground,” and whether it was any more desirable than the alternative. In 1995, the band lived up to the promise of its 1993 debut LP Icky Mettle by releasing the furious and frisky Vee Vee, but by 1998 it had called it quits, after only two more albums. Those albums—1996’s All The Nations Airports and 1998’s White Trash Heroes—were seen as “difficult” in some quarters, representing a band torn between raging punk, hooky guitar-pop, and wild experimentation. Around the same time that the last two Archers albums came out, Bachmann was also busy with his solo project Barry Black, for which he played around with junkshop instrumentals and Tom Waits-style ballads. Traces of the Barry Black sound made their way into All The Nations Airports and White Trash Heroes, which left some fans wondering whether Bachmann was still committed to rock ’n’ roll.
Given that Bachmann followed his Archers Of Loaf stint by founding the softer, folkier band Crooked Fingers, the skepticism about his eagerness to rock was probably warranted. But listening to Merge’s new reissues of All The Nations Airports and White Trash Heroes now, all the critical nitpicking of those records now seems shortsighted. Does Airports have too many instrumentals? Is Heroes stubbornly uncommercial? Who cares? These are two of the most creative, intelligent, and vital rock albums of the ’90s—in retrospect, every bit as good as Icky Mettle and only a few degrees below Vee Vee.
All The Nations Airports now seems especially prescient in the way it explores the theme of disaster. The calamities begin on the title track, in which Bachmann describes airline terminals where “tourists intertwine in effortless lumps” and “invalids collide with terrorist scum.” The theme picks up again on “Assassination On X-Mas Eve,” in which Bachmann amusingly describes some unstated tragedy that has the country’s citizens united in indignation. The next song is the haunting piano ballad “Chumming The Ocean,” about the grisly death of a diver. Then the album climaxes with “Distance Comes In Droves,” which warns of impending danger as “evil creeps along the coastline / underneath the belly of Alaska.” In between these tracks, the Archers knock out four diverse instrumentals, some catchy pop songs, and the remarkable “Form And File,” which alternates an acerbic relationship lyric with a jittery distress call from an outmanned fighter pilot. The album is relentless at first—all careening rhythms, shrieking guitars, and throaty diatribes—then gets hazier down the stretch. But Airports’ sound is not its main selling point; rather, it’s the sharp way the Archers make vivid, personal connections between the music and the ideas. Even now, the album is an enlightening travelogue of America The Endangered: a place where people are “asleep and divided in bands” until something monstrous comes along and wakes them up.
The lyrics on White Trash Heroes are even more vivid, though it was hard to notice that back in 1998, given how restless and often un-Archers-like the songs on Heroes are. At the time, the album sounded like the work of musicians with something else on their mind besides making music together; it sounded like a band trying to be different, aping contemporaries like Girls Against Boys, The Grifters, and Polvo rather than wrestling with its own style. What’s clearer now is that it’s also the work of musicians who’d learned their craft. The Archers Of Loaf of White Trash Heroes is a crack unit, able to switch tempos on a dime and tie a taut net of textured guitar noise beneath Bachmann’s wrecked voice. The album has some stunning highs: “Dead Red Eyes,” which builds from a two-note organ riff into a muscular, bass-driven tour through one man’s feeling of loss; “One Slight Wrong Move,” which starts off with nightmarish industrial noise and distant, echoing vocals, then rockets to a spooky, Vocoder-treated chorus of “One hundred million people could be wrong;” and the title track, which cruises through America on a bed of icy synthesizers.
Unlike the Merge reissues of Icky Mettle and Vee Vee, there’s not much in the way of B-sides, EPs, outtakes, and compilation tracks on the new All The Nations Airports and White Trash Heroes editions. The second disc of each is mostly filled with demos, which don’t sound markedly different from the finished versions aside from the cruddier sound and sloppier performances. But listening to the demo of White Trash Heroes’ raging opener “Fashion Bleeds,” it’s notable that Bachmann sings much quieter—more in the vein of his upcoming Crooked Fingers—than he would on the final track, and it’s also notable that the complicated arrangement of the album version is already in place. For a long time, White Trash Heroes had a reputation for being thrown-together and under-realized, but it sounds better with each passing year, and the demos show that it was every bit as thought-out and deeply felt as what preceded it. The Archers Of Loaf story is much simpler away from the context of “Will this band ever make it big and do they even want to?” An excellent band spent eight years together and made four albums. All are essential.