As revealed on an impressive new box set, the Dallas group’s signature brand of slowcore was the perfect antidote to the prevailing grunge and alterna-schlock of the ‘90s.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
With hindsight, the slowcore movement of the ‘90s looks a lot like the proverbial canary in the coalmine for the coming digital age. Think about today’s ADD music landscape, with its rapid-turnover of hi-speed garage rockers, high-BPM synth bands, and epilepsy inducing EDM — of slowcore acts like Low, Rex, Codeine, Ida and Red House Painters, only those left standing could be grandfathered into this climate.
But that’s what makes the 4-CD/5-LP Bedhead box 1992-1998 (Numero Group) compelling; it’s like an antidote to all that ails our age. Though the Dallas, Texas act disbanded after only six years in 1998, the songs of brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane resonate as much now as they did when slowcore’s patient and considered approach was an outlier to the grunge era. Though they only released three full lengths, a handful of singles and two EPs in their short tenure, every note, strum, cymbal ride and whispered lyric feels both organic and perfectly plotted.
The band’s debut, WhatFunLifeWas, dropped just a few months prior to Low’s debut, signaling a shift — at least in the indie rock world — from the loud-quiet-louder formula that saturated the alt-rock market and early ‘90s MTV. Though the groundwork was laid earlier by other bands (Galaxie 500, Spaceman 3 among them) and the aesthetic taken to extremes by their peers Low, the blend of funereal tempos, intertwined trio of guitar lines, downcast melodies and Matt Kadane’s spectral drawl was uniquely theirs. From the opening slink of “Liferaft” and first-single somnolent beauty of “Bedside Table” to the final sonic flurry of LP-closer “Wind Down” and the debut’s most fiery take, “Haywire,” the payoffs here don’t promise chorus-catharsis, but instead reward patience and close listening.
The band’s next full-length, 1996’s Beheaded, was their first for iconic Chicago indie label Touch & Go, and a further refinement of the band’s aesthetic and sound. They added a few bells and whistles (slide guitar, vibes), but the vision remained intact. “I don’t know if it’s worth it/I don’t know if I should keep trying/When most signs point to giving up,” Matt Kadane sings in resignation on the pensive title-track opener, adding later what could serve as slowcore’s raison d’être, “Everything moves too fast, that’s why there’s so much left in the past.”
Even more than the band’s debut, Beheaded obliterates the myth about slowcore — that it lacks passion and fire. “The Rest of the Day,” a six-minute epic and perhaps the band’s finest moment, is a study in rock & roll dynamics, its tension stretched to the breaking point by the time the song ignites two-thirds of the way through. Similarly, “Left Behind,” “What’s Missing” and the “Withdraw” all work their way to slow-burn crescendos whose intensities benefit exponentially from their deliberate beginnings. But even without those explosive moments, tracks like the gorgeous, VU-like “Roman Candle,” the up-tempo outlier “Felo de Se,” and mysterious “Smoke” bewitch the listener with their craftsmanship and execution.
Transaction de Novo, the band’s 1998 final full-length, proved not only that Bedhead had mastered this sound and its dynamics, but had probably come to the point where more would have exhausted those aspects as well. Produced by Steve Albini, the stalwart producer’s hand can be heard in a louder aesthetic – the guitars are fuzzier, the bass more prominent, the crescendos noisier. Bedhead slows the pace even more in places — “Exhume” and “More Than Ever” open the LP at an opiate-high crawl —in an attempt to ratchet up the tension between the explosive release of tracks like “Parade” and “Psychosomatica,” the latter a less-than-successful mash-up of the band’s Joy Division and Slint inclinations.
The fourth disc — or fifth vinyl — collects Bedhead’s singles and two EPs, 1994’s 4-Song EP and 1996’s sublime Dark Ages. Covers of New Order’s “Disorder” and the Stranglers’ heroin ode/warning “Golden Brown” reveal Bedhead’s listening habits but also their ability to claim these tracks as their own by stamping their style all over both of them. But two EP tracks, “Dark Ages” and “Inhume,” both eclipse the 5:30 mark and stand as highlights in the band’s catalog, the former tapping into a mid-tempo Joy Division pulse and the latter building inexorably to a memorable crescendo.
In his novel Slowness, published during this same era (1995), Milan Kundera describes a man walking down the street and slowing down to remember something pleasant, then speeding up his gait when confronted with a memory he wanted to forget: “The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” This is a sentiment Bedhead explored in great depth during their short run.
While there were certainly more adventurous indie rock acts at the time, Bedhead’s notion of taking one’s time went against the current then and, in our current quick-flicker digital world, seems even more of a welcome departure now.
Photo Credit: John Maxwell