Antietam- Music From Elba
If only I could have been my age now during the mid eighties. I would have not only gone out to see Antietam perform every chance that I could’ve had, but I would have been a self-appointed promotional man for the group, spreading their praise wherever I went until they finally received the acclaim that they truly deserved. Music From Elba may be the main piece of evidence that proves how Antietam has been one of the most interesting, and surely one of the overall best American alternative rock groups ever.
Antietam formed in 1984 by the husband and wife duo, Tara Key and Tim Harris, in Louisville, Kentucky. The rest of the group had changed its lineup throughout the years, but on this release, Wolf Knapp accompanied them on bass and Sean Mulhall joined in on drums while Danna Pentes appeared on violin. Each member makes their presence known as they flourish their playing with fantastic effort that somehow at the same time comes off like they’re playing with the greatest of ease.
The album opens by dropping to the ground sprinting with “San Diego”. The drumbeat is hard and energetic while distorted guitars push back with an equally driving tenacity. Tara Key’s vocals are clear and strong while the backing male vocals add an appealing complimentary sound as they hang around not the most obvious of tones. In fact, the vocals on this record are a very fascinating aspect to the overall sound. Key’s vocals are always powerful as well as wonderfully resonating but not always all that high, while the accompanying male vocals either stay higher or far lower than her voice. Sometimes Key’s voice goes from a steady low reverberation to a sudden blast upwards to a sturdy pinnacle, such as in ”Trouble Net”. Other times, additional vocals dominate songs, like the bass ridden and violin decorated “M.V. Augusta”. All of these factors make the vocal portion of the album to be virtually unpredictable and hard to compare, and this intrigues the ear and pull the listener in, as the listener is naturally compelled to follow the music very closely. Music From Elba is certainly not meant for background easy listening.
Each song on this record is vastly different, showing that Antietam is built with very creative and diverse musicians who are unafraid to throw in as many ideas into a song as possible. At times the band is blasting away in full speed with a punkish velocity with no chance of stopping, and then the entire song could slow down, shift even further in speed, or come to a clean and sudden halt before slamming ahead in speed again. In this way, the band seems a tad bit influenced by Television, whose syncopation and fluctuation of tempo made their Marquee Moon album the legend that it is today. On this note, Key at certain points sounds vaguely like a young and slightly sturdier Patti Smith. However similarities don’t hold well with this band due to how often the group tends to change within each song while somehow still retaining the same central identity. Some hold Antietam as being like Yo La Tengo, but to me, Antietam sound freer, wilder but still more educated. The band on this record sounds more like they’re a group of friends having a fun time together, each strutting their stuff for their own enjoyment. Isn’t this the best way music is created anyway? Their energy and enjoyment levels in the songs transcend to and infect the listener quite easily.
Nothing stands out of place on the record, as the production quality handles the barrage of sound quite well, letting each instrument be heard clearly with great precision. The production is so organic sounding that often the record sounds like the band recorded the album live in one room together. Even when acoustic guitars and even cello and harmonica are used (on “Camp Folk”) they are represented quite well in the crisp, porcelain like mix.
Being such an unpredictable record, just what audience would respond best to Music from Elba? While the release might be an acquired tastes for some, there are elements from all over the musical map, including jangle pop, psychedellia, post-punk, roots rock, noise rock and that barely detailed umbrella term “80’s Underground”, etc, etc. Whatever you might be into, there might be something in Music From Elba for you.
While still being a fairly irregular and ever shapeless album, Elba still remains a fascinatingly well-focused collection of songs. On each track, Antietam here sounds so young, excited, confident and exuberant about what they’re doing. It’s hard to find records that show all this so consistently. Twenty-six years on, Music From Elba still sounds significantly different, intriguing and truly peerless as it did when it was released.