[xrr rating=4.25/5]
[xrr rating=2.0/5]Between 1993 and 1995, Archers of Loaf released two classic indie rock albums in Icky Mettle and Vee Vee, both recorded quickly and in the middle of near-constant touring for the North Carolina band. In retrospect, out of the many bands to emerge in the alt-rock 1990s, maybe only Pavement – to whom the band was continually compared – had as good of a two-album run to start a career as the Archers did. Indeed, it’s primarily because of these albums that the Archers’ stature has grown in last few years, no doubt aided by a recent reunion that has introduced them to a wider audience.

Consequently, both 1996’s All the Nations Airports and, to a far larger extent, 1998’s White Trash Heroes are usually relegated to second class status in the band’s catalog. Merge’s well-conceived reissues of these two final albums might change that viewpoint, for at least Airports which has aged exceptionally well. An album of frayed nerves and recurring themes of death, movement and cold environments, it found the band playing to its strengths on rock songs like “Strangled by the Stereo Wire,” “Vocal Shrapnel,” “Bones of Her Hands” and the title song, its sense of paranoia and assortment of drunk pilots, invalids and “terrorist scum” sounding more unnerving in a post 9-11 world than they did in 1996.

The band polished away some of its courser edges on Airports, with several songs placing a greater emphasis on melody. “Scenic Pastures” is the band’s requisite jangly pop song; the band included four instrumentals, the last of which is a gorgeous piano number; the fatalistic ballad “Chumming the Ocean” is built around piano as Eric Bachmann patiently describes a step-by-step nautical drama that presumably ends with a diver’s death. There is a deliberateness of pace that wasn’t there on earlier Archers albums: Bachmann’s vocals are eerily drawn out on the desolate “Distance Comes in Droves,” while the sparse arrangement of “Rental Sting” slowly rolls along as he cheerlessly sings about how “little things/ can cost you everything.” A lot has been read into the fact that Airports had major label distribution power behind it – a first for the band – but there are no gross mainstream concessions here. Airports shows the band embracing more nuanced song structures and at the same time catching its breath for just a bit.

And then there’s White Trash Heroes: the black sheep in the band’s discography and one whose legacy, never great to begin with, probably won’t improve much even with this reissue. With its frequent use of keyboards, sequencer and even vocoder, it’s easily the most atypical and progressive Archers album and one that still meets with mixed results. It starts strong out of the gates with “Fashion Bleeds,” a trademark Archers rock song that wouldn’t sound out of place on any of the band’s first three albums. But elsewhere White Trash} is far spottier: bassist Matt Gentling takes lead vocals on the supremely strange “I.N.S.;” the band swaps instruments on the absolutely messy “Banging on a Dead Drum;” the vocals on “Dead Red Eyes” are enunciated with an odd redneck twang. The album is choppy and the band sounds a little tired. By all accounts the Archers had thought about calling it quits prior to recording, and some of that fatigue can be gleaned from these songs.

Each release is augmented with new artwork, liner notes and a bonus disc stuffed with four-track demos, singles, b-sides and previously unreleased songs. As was the case with Icky Mettle and Vee Vee, this material is well worth the price of admission. Despite, or perhaps because of, their lo-fi quality, the demos for Airports are a blast to listen to, while listeners may actually prefer the demo versions of the White Trash tracks to their album counterparts, as the demos sound a little less manufactured and a lot less forced.

For Bachmann, Gentling, Eric Johnson and Mark Price it’s been a victory lap a long time in the making. And though only one of these last two albums consistently managed to reach the heights of what came before it, even that hit-and-miss final record was nevertheless a noble attempt at experimentation and offers hardcore Archers fans another chance to talk themselves goofy about how it ties into Bachmann’s work in Crooked Fingers. It’s quite satisfying that while countless then-popular and utterly mediocre 1990s bands are today playing this country’s casino circuit, Archers of Loaf are finally fully receiving some well-deserved, and hard-earned, recognition.

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