Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Young Person's Guide to Silkworm

It seems like 2 or 3 times a year I'll find myself immersed in Silkworm's discography, marveling at their greatness. Since I discovered the band in the mid-90s, I've been trying to convince anyone willing to listen that this is band worth their time and money. Silkworm is one of those odd bands that seems to inspire total indifference or absolute devotion. To put it more bluntly, not that many people like Silkworm but those that do like them a hell of a lot. In the band's nearly 20-year career, they certainly had opportunities to expand their audience, graduating from tiny fly-by-night labels to big-time indies Matador and Touch&Go. However, they've never reached the levels of popularity of some of their contemporaries like Pavement or Yo La Tengo, to name two bands who have somewhat similar approaches to rock music. Speculating why certain bands gain recognition while others don't isn't exactly my area of expertise, but suffice to say I tend to think it has more to do with timing and luck than talent. I've never found Silkworm to be terribly inaccessible, especially compared to some of the paint-peeling noise than finds an audience in indieland.

So what makes this Chicago-by-way-of-Seattle-by-way-of-Missoula, Montana band so special anyway? When talking about one of your favorite artists, you always run the risk of hyperbole, something I generally try to avoid but that might be impossible in this case. To my ears, Silkworm's songs represent the promise of indie rock fulfilled: folding the creative explosion of punk and post-punk into the rest of rock history. It makes a lot sense that the band covered Fleetwood Mac and Comsat Angels on either side of an early 7 inch. There's a tendency for fans, critics and musicians to cleave rock history into pre and post-punk. (Just take a look at the Pitchfork 500 if you don't believe me.) Silkworm are fans of Mission of Burma and the Band. They recognize the aesthetic value of each and take cues from both of them.

This isn't to say that Silkworm is some spot-the-influence pastiche band. Far from it actually, as Silkworm's influences are fully integrated in into their playing and songwriting. The songs of bassist Tim Midgett and guitarist Andy Cohen evoke a range of emotions from playfulness to dread but rarely do they evoke the pretense of cribbing notes from other bands. Their songs (along with, on their earliest records, those of second guitarist Joel Phelps) just sound so damn human, as if they couldn't be anything else but a couple of guys casually locking in and playing exactly what they're feeling right at that moment. I suppose that sense of humanity is what I find so appealing about the band. There's no whiff of pretension in anything Silkworm has done, not even a notion of them saying to each other "this is the type of band we're going to be." Furthermore, the band's lyrical worldview seems completely honest, documenting the highs, lows and everything in between of life with an attitude that often feels world-weary but never defeated. Somehow, they also find fully appropriate musical backing for any feeling they want to conjure while generally sticking with the standard rock instrumentation of vocal, guitar, bass and drums. That's no easy feat.

Of course, it helps that the band is comprised of excellent players. Midgett's fat bass lines and the precise but hard-hitting drumming of Michael Dahlquist provide a rock-solid foundation and Cohen is simply one finest guitarists to ever emerge from the US underground. He'll spit out solos that would make devotees of Yngwie Malmsteen blush from indulgence and yet somehow it completely works within the context of the band's ensemble playing . Silkworm were modest guys making glorious music.

Sadly, the band's story came to a tragic conclusion when Dahlquist was killed in a car accident in 2005. Realizing that it wouldn't be Silkworm without him, Cohen and Midgett retired the name but still make music together in Bottomless Pit.

Below is a small sampling of Silkworm's work. Keep in mind that the band released nine full-lengths and numerous singles and EPs so this is but a sliver.

First up is the only video the band made, featuring Tim Midgett at the height of his Matt Damon-look-a-like phase and a budget of what I assume is about 15 dollars:
"Wet Firecracker" (from Firewater)

Next two songs each from Midgett:
One of the great all-time break up songs "Couldn't You Wait?" (from Libertine) and "Slave Wages" (from Lifestyle):

And Cohen:
The stomping "Into the Woods" (from In the West) and the reflective, fatalist "Sheep Wait for Wolf" (from Developer):

Bonus! Silkworm along Pavement's Steve Malkmus played a couple of a benefit shows in the late 90s as classic rock cover band The Crust Brothers. Here's their terrific version of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" with Midgett on vocals:

Just one indication of the devotion of their fans is that there's been a documentary on Silkworm in the works for a few years. It has yet to be completed but the trailer is on YouTube. It features testimonials from fans of the band whose opinion you might respect more than mine (Malkmus, Steve Albini, Jeff Tweedy):

Finally, I should mention that Tim Midgett invented the formula for Musical Correctness, something every critic-type/music lover should have memorized.


Janus Home said...

Hey, great post. Check out this interview that I did with Tim and Michael back in 2002: They were back in Seattle opening for Mission of Burma. It was a great interview and of course an awesome show. I'm kind of interested how the new Bottomless Pit stuff is sounding more and more like the oldest Silkworm stuff. They seem to be getting more into the Comsat Angels again and less into CCR!

Aimi said...

Thanks for this post. I've been in love with them ever since I heard "Couldn't You Wait" many years ago now.