My high school soccer coach believed assuredly his role as a motivator was crucial to our team’s well being. His long-winded diatribes, which we were made to endure at the beginning and end of our every meeting, were surprisingly moralistic, appallingly cliche-ridden and predictably boring. But he did impart a few phrases that have survived the mental exorcism that’s left much of my high school years in a fog, the kind of phrases one repeats to reuniting teammates, never failing to elicit hardy laughs and knee-slapping. Among the greatest were “I’d give my left nut to win this game” (my personal favorite, but irrelevant here) and this gem that was probably gleaned from a Vince Lombardi sound clip: “Soccer is a game of inches. I’ve won section championships by inches and I’ve lost section championships by inches.” Well said, Coach.
It’s not surprising that Les Savy Fav is also aware of the role of these diminutive intervals, how they can not only demarcate boundaries between success and failure, but also how important they can be in charting the course of evolving ideas over time. Inevitably each step is a progression from an original notion, either striving to abolish disliked pasts or to refine and nurture cherished ones. But all are unique to themselves.
And Inches is a history lesson that strives to explore the distance that these Brooklyn-based post-punks have tread. It compiles, in roughly reverse-chronological order, not quite an album or a collection of singles, but a mad bunch of nine different seven-inch records. Each grouping of songs, all released on different labels, are intended to complement each other. But they also crucially cohere, not only as a document of the band’s past, but also to form part of the massive interlocking art-piece that adorns the sleeves.
If one was inclined, the first ten songs could read as somewhat of a standalone document; all were recorded in 2002-03 after the release of 2001’s outstanding Go Forth. They even tread much of the same territory covered there: a slimmer, more stripped-down sound than demonstrated on early releases. Harrison Hayne’s drumming and Syd Butler’s terse bass lines lay down a danceable foundation, one that Seth Jabour’s soaring guitar and vocalist Tim Harrington’s impressionist ranting gleefully top off.
It’s a formidable combination, one that hardly needs tampering with to produce some of the most enjoyable music created by followers of edgy East Coast punk like Fugazi, Brainiac and Nation of Ulysses. The most accomplished and developed tracks here, “Hello Halo, Goodbye Glands” and “We’ll Make a Lover of You,” end up being among the best of the band’s recorded output.
A uniformly strong beginning leads to less appreciated goods: rawer mixes of two standout Go Forth tracks, “Reprobate’s Resume” and “No Sleeves,” and a live recording of 1999’s The Cat and The Cobra‘s “Reformat.” None are better than the slick album versions. Betraying their art-school origins, a dramatic reading of “Reformat” enacts a short drama involving the death of a submariner, adding a small back story to the original’s odd tale of the televised beheading of a naval captain. None of these tracks are unendurable, but they are hardly necessary.
The final four tracks hearken back to vintage five-member Fav; with now-departed guitarist Gibb Slife, the band was noisy as all hell and quite a bit wilder, revealing the meaning behind a saying previously found on their Web site: Les Savy Fav means punk fucking rock! “Our Coastal Hymn” is similar to the more raucous sound of their first full-length, 1999’s 3/5, but Harrington’s cheerleading and complex imagery are still powerful as always, with the ending anthemic refrain: “Rally up my friends/ come and stand by my bedside.” The final track is 1996’s “Rodeo,” the first thing the band ever recorded and a short sugary burst of energy with guitars strangely reminiscent of the Pixies’ “Holiday Song.”
The collection is impressive and, when considered as a whole, shows a sloppy, energetic band developing a more refined and distinct sound. It’s not entirely essential, but a few of the newer tracks here are among the best work the band has done, and they indicate that perhaps a future album will give us a definitive statement. And best of all, we can thankfully give up pursuit of all those damn expensive and tedious seven-inches and enjoy the neatly compiled work of a masterful group.