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Reviews: Silkworm's In the West

Silkworm's In the West

Silkworm’s In the West originally came out on CD and cassette on Seattle’s C/Z Records in 1994. I don’t recall specifically when or where I picked up a copy, but I can feel the accumulated grime on my fingertips from flipping through CD bins searching for it, triggering a Pavlovian response to go wash my hands. In the West lingers in that context, the feverish nightmare of its cut-and-paste cover art sharing an early-’90s aesthetic with countless other denizens of those bins, even as its contents far surpassed its now-forgotten neighbors. A quarter century after its initial release, Comedy Minus One honors In the West with its first-ever vinyl pressing, updating elements of its cover art but retaining the unsettling spirit of the original, blackened layer of dust not included.

This half-measure feels appropriate, as In the West deserves to be brought into 2019 but cannot be fully extracted from 1994. “Dated” is typically derogatory, but context is not, and In the West benefits from understanding its place within Silkworm’s development. After working through a series of demo cassettes during their infancy in Missoula, Montana and move to Seattle, Silkworm released their debut album L’ajre in 1992, followed by a string of seven-inch singles and the …His Absence Is a Blessing EP. There are flashes of excellence during those early years, later collected by Matador in the 2CD Even a Blind Chicken Finds a Kernel of Corn Now and Then: ’90–’94, particularly Tim Midyett’s affable “Slipstream,” Andy Cohen’s defiant “Scruffy Tumor,” and Joel R. L. Phelps’s reference-setting cover of The Comsat Angels’ post-punk classic “Our Secret,” but as the compilation’s self-effacing title acknowledges, they hadn’t figured it all out yet. In the West is the first point when their various influences and individual songwriting voices congealed into a whole, a process that would be furthered just eight months later with the release of its follow-up, Libertine (which is also once again on vinyl via CMO) then blown up by Phelps’s departure.

A congested timeline to be sure, but In the West was a significant milestone. Recorded by fellow Missoula native Steve Albini (dutifully uncredited), stylistically it bears far closer resemblance to early ’80s post-punk, like Mission of Burma or the aforementioned Comsat Angels (Waiting for a Miracle, Sleep No More, and accompanying singles only), than most of their contemporaries. I doubt their adopted homebase of Seattle did them any critical favors; In the West had just enough early-’90s scuzz in its guitar tones for unfocused scribes to absentmindedly sort them into the grunge pile, where their songwriting approaches would be decidedly out of place. (Not that critics, then or now, always bother to differentiate who’s singing which songs.)

The most nagging detriment of In the West’s 1994 date stamp has thankfully been corrected: the remix/remaster job for this reissue is a night-and-day difference from its original release, which suffered from era-typical muddiness and a thin mix that shackled drummer Michael Dahlquist’s considerable power. Starting with 1996’s Firewater, Silkworm’s albums carried a reference-quality combination of space, punch, and clarity—exemplars of Albini’s “the sound of a band in a room” engineering ethos—and this update brings In the West in line with those later recordings, which is no minor achievement. In the West is a dramatically different experience with a palpable rhythm section. It officially sounds like a Silkworm album, not a dry run at one.

In the West, then and now, is a uniquely dark album in Silkworm’s catalog, equally explosive and implosive. With the possible exception of its predecessor L’ajre (I’ll take the zero on the homework of revisiting that album), In the West is Silkworm’s heaviest guitar rock record, with Andy Cohen and Joel R. L. Phelps frequently churning thick chord progressions into clouds of noise, a practice that Libertine largely abandons. These storms are dynamically balanced with unsettling lulls, passages where the guitars vanish and minimalism takes over. There are deep-rooted melodies on most songs, but the up-tempo tracks skew more rocking than overtly catchy, with no earworms like Libertine’s “Couldn’t You Wait” or Lifestyle’s “Treat the New Guy Right.”

Typical to Silkworm’s democratic principles, In the West features a nearly even split between the three songwriters, but my reductive take on their respective approaches—Tim Midyett as the introspective, casually funny romantic, Cohen as the black-humored, semi-historical storyteller, Phelps as the nervy font of psychodrama—hasn’t quite settled yet. Midyett’s four songs are caught between Missoula and Seattle, youth and adulthood, with “Garden City Blues” ruminating on the mixed feelings of a return home, rousing from quiet reservations to unencumbered emotions. “Punch Drunk Five” evokes Montana in the final few lines of its hormonal rave-up, while the rocking “Incanduce” flits between staying, going, returning, and running away before being overcome a monstrous, low-slung riff. The most atypical Midyett contribution is the eight-minute “Enough Is Enough,” which gradually arcs from whisper to roar along with its uncomfortable lyrics about a pushy date. There are moments of humor in these songs, most notably the exasperated “Aw Jesus Christ!” in “Punch Drunk Five,” but Midyett’s search for himself and/or someone else tends to be lonely, over-excited, or frustrated, not poised. The stellar “Garden City Blues” is his best song on In the West, in possession of perspective rather than in pursuit of it.

In one sense, the quick synopsis of Andy Cohen’s songwriting applies to his trio of songs here: pitch-black humor coats almost every line (“Go into the woods and live with the bears / That way you can kill someone and nobody cares,” “Then I grabbed a drowning man / I used him for a raft”), loose narratives put Cohen’s voice in violent, unsavory characters, and why yes, that is a reference to General Pershing in “Dust My Broom.” In another sense, they leave you wanting more than the synopsis: Cohen improved dramatically over the next few albums in his ability to imbue potentially unlikeable characters with affecting depth (see Firewater’s trio of “Slow Hands,” “Tarnished Angel,” and “Don’t Make Plans This Friday”). This concern doesn’t matter much for “Dust My Broom” and “Into the Woods,” whose riffs scorch the earth like Sherman’s March to the Sea, but the slow-boiling “Parsons” never leans out of the lyrical darkness and is most compelling during its instrumental bridge.

It’s impossible to overstate the degree to which Joel R. L. Phelps ratchets up the intensity level on In the West; whether quietly repeating a line in a shell-shocked trance or howling loud enough to wake the neighborhood, Phelps commands dramatic tension like few other songwriters. “Raised by Tigers” (which I wrote about more extensively at One Week // One Band) condenses a wartime novella about the younger brother left at home into five masterful minutes. The initially sparse “Dremate” takes heart-on-sleeve to the utmost extreme, turning over the promise “Bare to you my heart” and its myriad ramifications before bursting into flames with the screamed refrain “Say that you will.” The bass-driven post-punk of “Pilot” closes In the West in an intriguing way, given the hair-raising climaxes of Phelps’s other two songs. The lyrics give full warning of what might come—“When I collide it will be something to remember / When I fall from the light it will be something to remember”—but even as Phelps teases a full-out yelp in the final minute, he pulls back, teetering on the precipice of that fall. Instead of the mammoth chords that shook many of the preceding songs, dual leads snake over the bridge, with Phelps’s wordless vocal accompaniment a welcome touch. Phelps excels on In the West at establishing and maintaining this unblinking level of intensity, but an entire album in this headspace would be draining. Phelps’s songs benefit from the shorter, punchier tracks like “Into the West” and “Incanduce” elsewhere on In the West; on Libertine and his solo / Downer Trio records, his wider range of approaches heightens the truly bristling moments.

To my knowledge, there’s no established hierarchy for Silkworm albums, no consensus ranking. You get to Silkworm albums when you get to them, and getting them doesn’t necessarily mean getting them. It took years (and the life experience acquired during those years) for me to fully appreciate Firewater, which finally clicked and became one of my favorite Silkworm records. Ranking them according to a perceived objective sense of quality misses the point: Libertine is a different experience than Firewater, which is a different experience from Developer, and so on, and the greatness of Silkworm comes from the range of those experiences. There are days when Lifestyle is my favorite Silkworm album and days when It’ll Be Cool is my favorite Silkworm album. This reissue puts In the West fully in the conversation. The songs were always there, but that old mix? It was work, a smudged lens distorting artistic intent. Now In the West is on a level playing field, and I understand its experience in a way that I hadn’t previously. It’s a darker, heavier experience than its brethren, and there will be days when that experience fits and days when it doesn’t. But 25 years after its release, and probably 20 after I first heard it, I get In the West. Maybe there’s still hope for L’ajre.

A valuable postscript: Almost two hours of bonus material is included in the digital download for In the West, and while little of it qualifies as essential listening for people who don’t self-identify as Silkworm devotees, that tag absolutely fits me and my appetite for ephemera, demos, and live recordings. Phelps’ rendition of the Christina Rossetti-penned Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Midyett’s yearning, “UK Surf”-esque alternate take on “Incanduce” (Dahlquist wrote on Silkworm’s web site “I think we tried to play quiet to mock some asswipe club owner, played ‘Incanduce’ in this sort of American Music Club way, and liked it enough to record it”) originally appeared on seven-inches and then Even a Blind Chicken, so they are both the best and most familiar tracks included here. (“Midwinter” is a precursor to Phelps’ more recent contributions to Comedy Minus One head Jon Solomon’s WPRB Xmas marathons, a few of which are available here.) There’s a raucous live rendition of The Dream Syndicate’s “Halloween.” Five songs are represented via seven direct-to-DAT demo recordings from 1991, including a pair of hyperspeed run-throughs of “Dust My Broom.” There are six individual live songs and a full 1993 set from Chicago’s venerable Lounge Ax, and the performances resonate through the mixed recording quality.