Release Date: Aug 5, 2014
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Garage Punk, Indie Rock
Spider Bags are here to keep rock 'n' roll alive. One could call the trio's sound "garage rock," but the band's new record goes a step beyond echoing, distorted fuzz. Frozen Letter is slightly rockabilly, a bit country, somewhat psychedelic and marginally surf, with ample doses of punk. And yes, there is plenty of garage.A little bit of everything and a whole lot of rockin' sound, Spider Bags' Frozen Letter seems set to change the face of modern garage rock with this release.
While previous Spider Bags releases spread their sound far and wide, the band’s fourth full-length album draws on a more singular inspiration. With Frozen Letter, the North Carolina trio dives headfirst into the psychedelic end of the garage rock pool. The result is their most cohesive set of songs to date, with a tighter and more refined lyrical focus.
Time goes by, but Spider Bags persist. Dan McGee’s band has come to a point of crystallization, a point toward which they’ve strived through a deluge of seven inches (all collected on 2013’s Singles) following the messy classics A Celebration of Hunger and Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World, and perfected on 2012’s revelatory Shake My Head. It isn’t exactly that they’ve cleaned up their act — they still spew LSD and malt liquor from every hole — but the difference lies somewhere between the band’s core songwriting habits and their, forgive the Music Writing 101 term, chemistry.
For almost a decade, Spider Bags have been one of the steadiest garage rock acts in the country. Not as sporadic as Black Lips or as prolific as Thee Oh Sees, the Chapel Hill trio floated under the radar despite dropping LPs of equal caliber, melding the guitar squalls of their contemporaries with country rock. As Spider Bags fought to be noticed on a wider scale, back home their sounds caught the ear of Mac McCaughan, who signed the band to Merge for their fourth LP, Frozen Letter, following their two on Birdman Records and one on Odessa.
Named after a slang term for heroin, Spider Bags have slipped under many a radar since their formation in 2005. Debut album A Celebration Of Hunger arrived in 2007 when the band was focused around friends Dan McGee and Gregg Levy; it captured the punky angst of the pair and saw them mine their own hard living existence for lyrics. The New Jersey duo had relocated to North Carolina early in the band’s existence but, following third album Shake My Head in 2012, Levy returned to New Jersey and promptly became a part-time band member, contributing guitar to just a handful of tracks this time round.
Growth is often incremental and on the surface, the Spider Bags don't sound as if they've changed much on their fourth album, Frozen Letter, even though it marks their debut on a new (and bigger) label, Merge Records, and their first effort since guitarist Gregg Levy moved from full-time to part-time status with the group, appearing on just four of the album's eight tunes. But give it a couple of spins and Frozen Letter does sound tighter, more ambitious, and more mature than the band's earlier work, with less of a focus on bad behavior and more observational material that suggests Dan McGee and his bandmates are doing less drinking and more thinking lately. While the first half of the album is devoted to short, garage-inclined bursts like "Japanese Vacation" (smart and swaggering, with some fine, clean picking from frontman McGee) and "Summer of '79" (a nervy rant against classic rock that asks the question "Why do you wanna be a Rolling Stone?/Why do you think your daddy is the King of Rock & Roll?"), the album closes out with four tunes that all run over five minutes, and "Coffin Car" and "Walking Bubble" both manage to sound simple but contemplative, the latter dominated by acoustic guitars and a dour vocal, while the former feels impressionistic and just a bit artful, full of shimmering tremolo, ambient electronics, and thick organ patches alongside guitar figures that grow bigger and noisier as the melody moves forward.
Life is tiring, and Spider Bags have always provided a party for the increasingly fatigued. Frontman Dan McGee’s words have had a whiskey-slouch to them ever since the band's 2007 debut, A Celebration of Hunger. It could spring from his North Carolina clime, but there’s a Southern gothic bent to Spider Bags that separates them from a lot of American garage fare.
Spider Bags straight from the garage sound hasn’t changed much in their nine-year existence — and that’s a compliment. There is a tendency for bands to constantly evolve and change their sound from record to record. The downside being that the raw, spontaneous sound that made them interesting to begin with is often abandoned for a more staid, mature (read: dull) offering.
In a recent interview with Audiofemme, head Spider Bag, Dan McGee, commented on his local, adopted music scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, “Even though people play different music and there’s different genres, everybody supports each other, because it’s still pretty small here”. Living outside nearby Raleigh, NC, I’m a homer when it comes to anything Chapel Hill and was more than enthused to see these local boys’ latest release, Frozen Letter, their fourth LP, come across our release list. To boil it down briefly, Spider Bags trades in ‘60s inflected garage rock.