I have a thing about Silkworm. Although they are unequivocally up there among my top five or so favorite bands, it always seems to take me a good year or so to fully warm up to their newest record. As it happens, this is usually about the time that they're putting out yet another one. So, by this logic, I should really be writing a review of 2000's Lifestyle
, which has been making its way back into heavy rotation in the ol' player these days. However, I somehow doubt that my editor would appreciate that very much. So, here, in all its premature glory, is my assessment of Silkworm's new record, and the first record in several years that they've recorded while all living in the same city.
When guitarist Andy Cohen moved to Chicago in 1998 to go to law school, the trio resolved to stay together. Obviously, live appearances would be considerably less frequent, but with two thirds of the band still making their home in Seattle, I still held on to the vain hope that Cohen would move back, and I'd once again get to see the mighty Silkworm live show more than once every year or two. However, just the opposite happened, as this year, bassist Tim Midgett and drummer Mike Dahlquist made the big move to the Windy City, joining not only their guitar player, but also their record label, their recording engineer of choice (the inimitable Steve Albini), and, as luck would have it, a sizeable chunk of their fanbase. See, for as long as Silkworm had been a Seattle band, they were held in the highest regard and drew decent sized crowds pretty much everywhere except Seattle, where they would be lucky to draw fifty diehards on a Friday night. So, while it certainly makes sense in every way for the band to make the move to Chicago, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it bummed me out a bit.
Interestingly, this consolidation, or pulling in of the ranks, as it were, has resulted in a rather intriguing beefing-up of Silkworm's roster. For the past ten-odd years, the 'Worm has been a fairly self-sufficient entity. When second guitarist Joel R.L. Phelps left the fold back in '95 for the greener pastures of a solo career, there was no talk of replacing him -- the band just soldiered on as a trio, and proceeded to release one of the best albums of their career, the sprawling, ambitious, brilliant Firewater. And a trio they remained, with de facto fourth member Steve Albini a constant presence behind the board.
However, Italian Platinum sees the trio expanding into a bloody five-piece, fer god's sake. Well, sort of. I guess Matt Kadane (ex-of Bedhead, currently of The New Year) is something of a full-fledged member, tinkling the ivories agreeably on songs like "LR72" and "Young", and laying down a positively greazy clavinet solo smack dab in the middle of "White Lightning". "A clavinet solo in a Silkworm song?!?" you ask incredulously? Well, yeah. And after a couple of listens, I must admit that it's a pretty nice moment. It's not like this is the first time Silkworm have brought a keyboard player into the mix -- we need only look to "I Must Prepare (Tablecloth Tint)" from Blueblood to see that Brett Gossman's piano playing was an integral part of that excellent tune -- but never before have so many songs on a Silkworm record had the benefit of such extra instrumentation. And that ain't even the half of it; Silkworm have even seen fit to bring a girl singer into the fold. Yes, folks, Bloodshot Records' very own Kelly Hogan is here, singing lead on one song, "Young", and contributing background vocals on many other tunes.
These two additions have the effect of bringing Silkworm closer to classic rock territory then they've ever dared venture under their own name. While this may come as no great surprise to Silkworm devotees, who are well aware that as their alter-egos, The Crust Brothers, (which also features Steve Malkmus, from that one band), Messrs. Cohen, Midgett and Dahlquist have been known to indulge in a full hour's worth of Creedence covers with "Sweet Child O' Mine" thrown in for an encore, "Young", the song that Hogan lends her pipes to, evokes nothing so much as a less histrionic Janis Joplin fronting The Band.
Truthfully, the band has been moving in this direction for some time -- their dead-on cover of The Faces' "Ooh La La" on Lifestyle showed this plain as day -- but several of the songs on Italian Platinum, including "Young" and "The Old You", take this style to its logical conclusion. And it's not as if Silkworm has abandoned their former bread and butter; opener "(I Hope U) Don't Survive" is a classic Cohen stomper, much in the vein of "Eff", from Blueblood, or "Nerves", from Firewater. "Dirty Air" and "The Third" are in a similar vein to previous Tim Midgett two-minute corkers, such as "Wet Firecracker" and "Redeye". Midgett also has a turn with his quiet, sensitive side, with the gentle "Is She a Sign" and the poignant "Moving" (which directly addresses Midgett's move from Seattle to Chicago). There's a moving Cohen slow-burner ("The Ram"), and another Midgett/Dahlquist vocal duel, in the same vein as "Around the Outline" from Lifestyle ("Bourbon Beard"), except catchier, and better executed, wonderfully juxtaposing Dahlquist's froggy croak with Midgett's soaring, emotional voice.
Perversely, some of the band's most accessible moments this time around also feature some of their most inscrutable lyrics. Cohen is guilty of this more than Midgett, especially in his songs that open and close the disc, "(I Hope U) Don't Survive" and "A Cockfight of Feelings". "Don't Survive" features the perplexing chorus "And I love you means I hope you don't survive the night", whereas "Cockfight" marries a catchy-as-fuck, almost funky Midgett bassline to strange lines like "The worst work on Earth is on a turkey farm / When those birds get excited, sound the alarm". Huh? Although Cohen's taste for obscure historical narrative goes way back (need we bring up his "Last chance to kiss General Pershing / Before Normandy" line from In the West's " "Dust My Broom"?), God only knows what he's going on about in tunes like "LR72" (whose lyrics are as impenetrable as its title) and "The Ram" ("Slap that meat out of your mouth / The Ram wouldn't like it in his house / Object of worship, And of torture / He is the system and the winning mystic"). Cohen's way too smart to just be spewing nonsense, and I'm sure he's got some sort of agenda going on behind these songs that I'm just not well-read enough to pick up on, but the results can be slightly frustrating.
Midgett, on the other hand, is slightly less obtuse. It sounds like he penned the lyrics to "Young", as straightforward and poignant as they are: "Everyone wants someone exotic / Who's in love with the ordinary". In the quiet, contemplative "Moving", Midgett addresses the problem of friends who you hardly ever see getting all choked up as soon as you decide to move away: "I won't leave you now / I rarely saw you anyhow / Why don't you pick up the telephone / And call me when I'm never home".
Even when you don't really know what he's talking about, Midgett has a way of infusing his words with emotional heft through his vocal delivery. While Cohen is laconic and seldom seems to break a sweat, you can practically see Midgett's eyeballs bulging out of his skull on the raucous chorus to "The Third". And in that same song, when he sings "When you play the third / Is it dirty, or is it kind of divine", he gets his point across -- even if you're not really sure what it is.
It's these sorts of paradoxes that make Silkworm one of the most important bands operating on the musical landscape today. While they consistently get dismissed as "generic indie rock" by folks who lack the patience to seriously dig into their oeuvre, they are as multi-layered and subtle a band as you'll find. The fact that they're not afraid to rock out with their cocks out on occasion, and that Andy Cohen is one of the most inventive guitarists operating in indie rock today, is merely a facet of their multilayered personality. As for the importance and general worthiness of Italian Platinum in the context of Silkworm's entire body of work, I'm not quite sure yet. Get back to me in a year.