Quarantining The Past: Rodan’s ‘Rusty’

    In the wake of the sad passing of Jason Noble, we are left with a far-reaching musical legacy to sift through. Noble’s work with Rachel’s and Shipping News are at once vastly different and both utterly arresting. It’s hard to argue, though, that he will be remember for anything quite as much as he’s remembered for Rodan’s one full-length album, Rusty. That’s not because Rachel’s or Shipping News aren’t amazing, but because Rusty is both perfectly executed and fascinating to dig through.

    Part of that fascination is the time and place Rusty emerged from. It’s easy (and revisionist) to say that the huge influence of Slint’s 1991 classic Spiderland loomed large, and that it was gutsy for Rodan to come up with this, a record that doesn’t sound like it wants to be Spiderland so much as it wants to challenge Spiderland to a heavy-riff-and-angular-shifts off. But in 1994, Spiderland‘s status as the post-rock record was still in its fledgling stage when Rodan was making this record. So it’s not like Rodan was working in Slint’s shadow. The two bands are from Louisville, though, and released records through Touch and Go distribution (Slint was on Touch and Go Records, Rodan on Quarterstick), so you might imagine influence born out of camraderie or the kind of collegialism that exists in local music  scenes. So regardless of Spiderland‘s reputation, there was something daring in Rodan taking Slint’s post-rock script and flipping it.

    But there’s a huge difference between these two records, and I’m not just talking the obvious sonic differences. Post-rock is, by definition, interested in escape. And yes, you can argue that all music, representational or not, is about escape — shaping the familiar into lyric, progression, melody, making it other than what it is — but bear with me. That term “post-rock” implies a moving past established traditions, leaving behind the trammels of the old way in favor of something different, something other, something vital and young and all its own. Now there is, surely, the argument to be made that terms like post-rock or math-rock (which get’s thrown at Rodan plenty) are little less than pretension or bullshit marketing. Even if that’s true, though, that means that either artists or critics or fans or labels or some from all these groups and others are looking to define something as being an escape, as leaving the familiar behind. Spiderland is a particularly perfect example of this since its title implies an alien and wholly new place, a land you’re not likely to find on a map, a land built on the foundation of a new sound.

    Rusty is not about new ground. That is not to say it wasn’t innovative and fresh in its time — or to say that same freshness doesn’t still come across — but what it’s not doing is mapping its own terrain. Instead, it’s mining the terrain it came out of, the terrain of Kentucky, of the bluegrass region, of the Ohio River, of a particular permutation of the south. So while you may not hear a note that sounds anything like Duane Allman, Rusty is, in its way, a Southern rock record. 

    Now, Rodan subverts at every turn here, but the traditions they subvert are sometimes right there on the surface. So I could point to the interplay of guitars between Jason Noble and Jeffrey Mueller on opener “Bible Silver Corner” and how one is dry and dusty, the other melting and sweaty, or I could point out how some of those phrasings end with a faint country twang. Or I could talk about the quick blast of “Shiner” and how it feels, when you strip away its sharp angles, like the most fiery rockabilly song you ever damn heard. Even the octave runs on “The Everyday World of Bodies” sound like an alien take on the Southern arena-rock another Louisville band, My Morning Jacket, would build their name on and then distance themselves from.

    So there are these basic, even surface level touchstones that hint at Southern musical tradition, but what’s going on with Rusty, what makes it both such a curious record and a record so steeped in its here and now is a bit harder to pinpoint. It’s not about, necessarily, the guitar tones or what twangs or doesn’t or if something sounds like it has a faint whiskey shuffle to it. In fact, the album’s — and by extension the band’s — “Southernness” is in someways incidental, but that is what makes it all the more convincing. Rodan didn’t set out to twist and tweak and honor Southern music or tradition, it just came out that way.

    Which is to say that there is something in the brittle edges of these guitars and how they mesh with the warm, bubbling low-end of Tara Jane O’Neil’s bass and Kevin Coultas’s rumbling drums. It all lives and breaths a particular geography, and even a distinct melancholy. Take the shift from the somber space of “Bible Silver Corner” to the tensed-up howl of “Shiner.” They seem to have little to do with each other, the former an instrumental built on swirling, slow, clean guitar, the latter a slashing fit of noise. What they do is set up the dynamics of the record, a record that is constantly shifting and rarely fading from one element to the next. Songs don’t echo each other so much as they stand parallel to one another.

    This oppositional construction takes its most daring form in the album’s longest song, “The Everyday World of Bodies.” It’s an album that shifts brilliantly between these two poles, between spacious meditations and teeth-gritting fury. The song recounts an intimate but troubling exchange between two people about to have sex, one seemingly coercing the other. The language used though, in particular the line “the rain has a sound,” says quite a bit about the music itself. The song feels like the kind of late-summer storm you’re likely to encounter in humid climates (read: Southern states), the squalls hit quick and leave fast. They don’t fade so much as they just end. The guitars cut with hard downstrokes here, but then they slide, with O’Neil’s bass shadowing them, and the effect is damp, erosive. “Everything changes,” or so the song says often (in a scream) and it feels like both frustration and relief. 

    This combination of frustration and relief carries over into other moments in the record. From the uphill, rising tension of chords behind O’Neil’s voice on “Jungle Jim” to the way the circular guitar phrasings burst into quick cuts on “Tooth Fairy Retribution Menifesto.” On purpose or not, it taps into the sort of melancholy you might expect from a region still shaking off a troubled past, one still singled out for its prejudice, a place we (that being, everyone outside of it) can wag its finger at and feel better than. There’s also, more pointedly, the emergence of industry in the South that adds to this melancholy, where industry comes in and money gets made but not by the workers who populate said industry. In fact, many industries were lured to the south by the cheap promise of non-union work. On Rusty, there is the feeling of some miasma weighing everything down, of the reality hidden just behind the revitalized downtowns and new automobile factories and gentrified neighborhoods. What’s incredible about the album is the different permutations this melancholy takes on. It’s pushed aside in favor of channeled anger, or shifted into cautious hope. It’s easy to hear “I’m surprised the day even came, but it came and it came,” on “Shiner” as fatalism, but there’s a hint of possibility in there. As much as there’s a hangover pounding, there’s also anticipation of the moment the feeling passes, that as the day comes and comes something might get better.

    There is also, though, an isolation to all of this. Because for all its shifting sounds, there are two other elements Rusty trades brilliantly in: space and silence. After “Shiner,” we get ten seconds of silence, of void. When we get to the end of the record, after we charge through all six-plus minutes of “Tooth Fairy Retribution Manifesto,” the song cuts abruptly. It doesn’t ring out or resonate, it simple stops. The effect is jarring but in a fruitful way. It can remind us that, in some ways, the South is most distinctive form of regionalism in the United States, and that can put it in opposition with other regional cultures. This isn’t good or bad, and in fact it could make for a fruitful exchange of culture. Rodan taps into many of the best parts of the musical culture of the South, and twists them into their own unique sound, one that feels born of both country and industry, one that could (and did) catch ears from all different parts of the country. But what Rusty suggests is that sometimes that exchange of culture goes one way, that it can be predatory and, thus, isolating. Their music is part of the terrain around them, but still feels cut off from what’s around it. It’s cut off for so many reasons — these songs also deal with much more personal disconnections — but one of them is that this is head and shoulders above a lot of other rock records that came out in the early-’90s. It’s credited as one of the founding records of math-rock, and even if that’s a strange distinction it does suggest accurately the album’s power and influence.

    Jason Noble and his band made this one full record, with that quick final note, and that was it. Spiderland killed Slint, but Rusty was simply all Rodan had to say. It was proof that you don’t have to escape your situation to make us see it in a new way. It was a shout outward in all directions from a particular point on the map, and whether or not that sound echoed back to them didn’t really matter. The point is that they made it and it told us something about them and where they are from. It tells us something big and shapeless and yet somehow distinct about living in the South. It says there are no real answers, it says the problems are bigger ones than we realize and changing all the time. But it also says there’s a vibrance, a resilience. The quick, furious summer storms don’t wash anything away, and when the storms don’t cut the heat, when all that rain just steams off the macadam, Rodan showed us that while it all may seem the same in those moments, things do change, incrementally. The new stays new, the new keeps getting built, and while the old structures — the now empty factories and storefronts — don’t fade away, they do get a little rusty.