Music Features

Slint's Spiderland Box Set

In 1991, an issue of Melody Maker was the first to feature a review of Spiderland, the finest and final release from Louisville, Kentucky rock band, Slint.  The review’s author, producer and Big Black frontman, Steve Albini, wrote the following:

“We are in a time of midgets: dance music, three varieties of simple-minded hard rock genre crap, soulless-crooning, infantile slogan-studded rap and ball-less balladeering. My instincts tell me the dry spell will continue for a while - possibly until the bands Slint will inspire reach maturity. Until then, play this record and kick yourself if you never got to see them live. In ten years, you’ll lie like the cocksucker you are and say you did anyway.  

Ten fucking stars.”

It’s been twenty-three years since Albini’s praise circulated across whatever lattice of network had existed back in pre-Internet days of music fandom, long past the avalanche of the alternative nation whose day in the sun hadn’t spawned so much of an underground awakening as it had allowed record labels to see past Aqua Net and Hammer pants for a year or two.  Spiderland emerged without a band to claim it, no tour to speak of and little to no actual word of its existence and yet it stands as one of indie rock’s most significant works, a collection of songs compelling enough to warrant an abundance of analysis and inform the stylistic pursuits of many bands who followed in Slint’s wake.  Recognizing the impact Slint’s second LP has enjoyed over the last couple of decades, Touch and Go Records is issuing a boxset that features the original album as well as unreleased tracks and Breadcrumb Trail, a documentary detailing Slint’s ontogeny and the making of Spiderland

Breadcrumb Trail is a feature length film directed by Lance Bangs, a fan who’d fallen in love with Spiderland not too long after the album’s initial release.  As he explains during the film’s introduction, Bangs’ fascination with Slint led him to explore the music scene in Louisville during the early 90s and eventually befriend the band's members.  Pieced together from archival footage (which was thankfully in plentitude) as well as some very insightful commentary from band members, family, friends and indie rock mainstays like Ian MacKaye, Steve Albini, Corey Rusk and David Yow, Breadcrumb Trail’s story begins with Britt Walford and Brian McMahan, two very kindred souls who began playing music together as very young teenagers.  Beginning with their first band, Languid and Flaccid, Walford and McMahan navigated the often incestuous and regionally active Louisville underground, performing in notable acts like Squirrel Bait and Maurice.  With guitarist Dave Pajo, Walford eventually formed Slint in 1986.  The band’s first show (minus McMahan who joined later) was held at a Unitarian service and they were billed as Small Dirty Tight Tufts of Hair. 

While Bangs explores well the idiosyncratic and obsessive methodology behind Slint’s process, not to mention the two complementary personas dually responsible for the band’s approach to music, he also examines the overall construction of Spiderland, practice footage and live performances capturing the band’s development before the material had met the studio.  After the recording session is discussed, Walford drowsily states, “I don’t think I had any sense of… like, [Spiderland] being special in the outside world or something.”

Within the context of the box set, Bangs’ efforts demystify the album to some degree, as clarity is a price you pay for wanting the experience.  The album’s anonymity was a part of the original presentation: itself dressed in the portrait of four young boys with their heads above water, drenched in black and white, smiling for the camera.  Spiderland was a stroke of momentous and singular brilliance, its ideas committed to permanence before its authors’ union dissipated into the ether, a factor that had stoked Bangs’ curiosity.  With a narrative in place, Spiderland becomes more grounded, less the bizarre artifact assigned to its time and place leaving many both excited while scratching their heads in wonder. 

But, as Spiderland has had twenty-three years to gain its following, the mystery had probably been mostly solved anyway.

Dissecting the package, the Spiderland box set comes with the original album intact, three songs per side.  Bob Weston (Shellac, Mission of Burma) handled the remastering.  Two bonus LPs contain four sides of extras, some of which are out-takes from the Spiderland sessions.  A 104-page book loaded with photographs and band ephemera is included, as are CD versions of the album and bonus tracks. 

From the listener’s standpoint, Spiderland is an emotionally dense album, structurally intricate and repetitious.  For its time, it was a unique release and didn’t sound as if it had been derived from some compendium of obvious sources.  Slint molded this album and through the outtakes, many of which are home recordings, you’re able to hear tracks like Nosferatu Man being worked out sans vocals during a basement rehearsal, or hear a speaker cut out during a demo of Good Morning, Captain.  The primitive and basic playback that’s maintained provides a true blueprint of the finished product, the added charm of tape hiss recalling its era of creation.  Pam and Glenn, two tracks that were recorded during the sessions for Spiderland but cut from the release, are obvious points of interest, instrumental tracks that, while strong enough on their own, were smartly omitted.  Another inclusion worth mentioning is a live performance of Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer, recorded in Chicago in 1989.

Overall, the Spiderland box set delivers a thorough back-story to a record worth commemorating.  As of this writing, the set is sold out, so its appeal still obviously runs deep with those familiar with the material.  Generally speaking, it’s not likely that this extensive version was designed to expose the album to any potential new fans.  That being said, the true testament to Slint’s masterpiece is its staying power.  It’s still available in its original format, ready to gain new fans.  To those of you that have yet to make Spiderland’s acquaintance, you only need to read Albini’s summation:

“Ten fucking stars.”