TBTS Reviews: Archers of Loaf, All the Nations Airports and White Trash Heroes reissues
Remastered versions of the final two Archers of Loaf albums are now available on Merge Records, and even the least audio-oriented Archers fans out there should consider these remasters a worthy investment. My audiophilia usually goes only so far as being able to recognize a difference between a low-bit-rate MP3 and a higher-rate one, and preferring the higher one. Still, even a brief side-by-side listening test of the original and reissued LPs proves that Bob Weston’s remasters are huge, revelatory improvements. Especially on All the Nations Airports, everything sounds clearer and brighter, with individual instruments pulled out of what was formerly a muddy mess, hosed off, and finally given the space they need.
It’s fortunate that the remastered sound makes such a vital difference, because the other component to these reissues, the previously unreleased material, is less essential. For a band that did some of its best early work on B-sides, 7” singles, and especially the absolutely immortal, career-peak Greatest of All Time EP, the Archers seem to have recorded very little, if any, worthwhile non-album material in their later years. B-sides “Density” on the Airports reissue and “Jive Kata” on the White Trash reissue are fine songs, but that’s about it for extra material that’s worth repeated listens on these reissues. As I’ve written before, I put myself squarely in the “rabid Archers fan” category, and even I’m not interested in multiple demo versions of the album tracks.
However, complaining about the B-sides in this case is like bemoaning a substandard dessert after the finest steak dinner of your life, because All the Nations Airports and White Trash Heroes are both brilliant albums.
For this fan who’s listened to all four albums dozens (if not hundreds) of times over the last 20 years, All the Nations Airports is the best, most unified start-to-finish listening experience of the band’s career, except perhaps for the Greatest of All Time EP. Pitchfork’s otherwise thoughtful and well-written reviews of these reissues lead off with the absurd assertion that the Archers peaked with “Web in Front,” which was literally the first song on their first album! I never understood the reverence for “Web in Front,” a throwaway dwarf of a track that I’d slot, at best, in the lower reaches of a Top 40 countdown of the Archers’ most visceral and vital songs. The Archers of “Web in Front” were minor-leaguers compared to the musical and compositional ambition and execution they displayed on All the Nations Airports.
Airports is sequenced masterfully, with perfectly placed peaks and valleys, a well-considered transition between Side A and Side B (“Chumming the Oceans” into “Vocal Shrapnel”), and a truly epic climax, “Distance Comes in Droves,” followed by the lovely denouement of “Bombs Away.” It features the Archers at their most aggressive and sonically assaulting (the opening knockout “Strangled by the Stereo Wire,” the title track, and the aptly named “Attack of the Killer Bees”), their most catchy (“Scenic Pastures”) and their most beautiful and moving (“Chumming the Oceans”). The Archers simply never accomplished more on a single album than they did on All the Nations Airports, and I’ve been stunned to read some of the wide-angle, “career assessment” conventional wisdom that seems to hold that Airports is their least essential album. Pretty much the opposite for me, and the reissue is a welcome reminder of Airports’ many strengths. I hope the reissue changes a few opinions too.
White Trash Heroes is the Archers’ most difficult, thorny, unpredictable, and anomalous record. In this case, I agree with the standard historicizing, revisionist (in that it could have emerged only with the benefit of hindsight) view of White Trash as the product of a tour-weary, industry-weary band heading toward a necessary stopping point. And yet, by no means did the Archers “phone it in” for White Trash. In fact, they were brash and daring, seeming to challenge both themselves and their listeners to forget early signposts such as “Wrong” and “Harnessed in Slums.” White Trash is the recorded equivalent of a veteran band refusing to do a greatest hits setlist on tour, instead delivering the only creative output that their restless artistic energy would allow and saying to the audience, “This is the only direction we know how to go—coming with us is up to you.” I’ve always admired the hell out of that record for being the absolute opposite of a compromise, rehash, or cash-in, and over the years, I’ve grown to love it on its own musical terms as well. Among other stellar moments (“One Slight Wrong Move,” “Dead Red Eyes,” and “After the Last Laugh” stand out for me), the title track is like the well-designed scene in a book that both satisfyingly concludes one beautiful chapter and points the way toward the next (Eric Bachmann’s second essential band, Crooked Fingers).
In other words, White Trash Heroes is absolutely not a summary statement on the Archers’ career or a crystallization of every creative impulse that had come before. If anything, All the Nations Airports is the best single-album presentation of the Archers’ prowess. Thankfully we have had the chance to see a true summary statement recently, in the form of the reunited Archers’ mini-tours (by definition, “greatest hits tours”) in 2011 and 2012. Hope abides that these recent tours and reissues—retrospective comments on all the places the Archers of Loaf went as the greatest indie-rock band of the 1990s—are merely setting the stage for a new creative phase 15 years after the first chapter concluded. I’m absolutely convinced that this fearsome foursome of 40-somethings has more to say and could, if their hearts lead them in this direction, once again write songs and put out albums that rank among “the greatest of all time.”