Icky Mettle, the debut album from seminal Chapel Hill indie-rockers Archers of Loaf, did not need to be re-released. When remastering it, it sounds like Bob Weston took a laissez-faire approach, retaining the murky tinge of Caleb Southern’s original production job while maybe decreasing the high end a little bit. The songs that appear on Disc two of the reissue originally populated most of the band’s The Speed Of Cattle b-sides compilation, in addition to the still-available-on-10” concept EP Vs. The Greatest Of All Time. Even the liner notes by music critic royalty Robert Christgau mainly focus around how croaky vocalist/guitarist Eric Bachmann’s lyrics are often hard to understand, especially among those who create content for lyric database websites. However, none of the above points mean a thing in the bigger picture, simply because Icky Mettle remains an undeniably essential album, a pure, unadorned chronicle of honest emotion and expression. That it’s being put out once again by Merge, a label that has built its sterling reputation on arguably the same things that made the Archers great, and has expanded its reach to listeners worldwide and in the mainstream, is cause for celebration. This reissue is less about the actual gift, and more about the gesture.
Which isn’t to say, for first time listeners, that they aren’t receiving one hell of a present. With Icky Mettle, you have an album completely devoid of pretension, concern with genre tags, or fear of personal overshare. It captures so effectively a sense of twenty-something angst and confusion, that swerves from extremes of tenderness and surprising amounts of pop sensibility to sheer power and aggression in head-spinningly short amounts of time. Just one re-listen to “Wrong” illustrates this point brilliantly. What starts as scathing indictment morphs into a statement of love-centered confusion, augmented brilliantly by guitarist Eric Johnson’s ember-spewing, on the edge of being out of tune guitar leads. It’s an album that takes fears, uncertainties, and unspeakable admissions and fulfills the adolescent fantasy of blaring them to cheering crowds with an army of guitars supporting every phrase, even if they’re incredibly hard to understand (as Christgau points out when referencing the nearly-hardcore barnburner “Sickfile”). It transports listeners into the dead-end jobs, the faulty relationships, and the sometimes crushing ennui of everyday life while never seeming self-indulgent (despite Bachmann’s claim on “Might”) or whiny. It’s an album that treats you like a friend it can trust with its secrets, and knows you don’t mind when it occasionally vents to you. When listening to Icky Mettle, you feel included, like they’re the crew you’ve known your entire life. The fact that it’s both very relevant today and a thrilling snapshot of the restlessly creative 90’s underground is no small achievement.
As illustrated on Vs. The Greatest Of All Time, the Archers would move into more difficult territory, reaching its culmination on Vee Vee, which is set to be re-issued on Merge in 2012. But for every time that the Archers seemed tentative, as they do on their early seven-inch material, or willfully abrasive, as on Greatest, they never lost their ability to create a strong bond with their listeners. You may never figure out what an “Audiowhore” is, or what it is that somebody got “Wrong” and can’t get right, but they somehow made it easy to relate. The fact that an entire new generation of music listeners will get the chance to form this bond is very exciting.