if I did that, then maybe I wouldn't have to bother disputing the idea that rock -- unless it's in quotation marks or costumes -- is a dead shark. But since those nickels are purely a figurative device, you may want to pick up Developer and Blueblood for yourself -- the two most recent, and for my money, finest albums yet made by Silkworm.
Silkworm get the devoted love of a retinue of hardcore fans from back in the day, the admiration of a growing number of latecomers, and an inconsequential smattering of lip service from those who eat whatever Matador or Touch and Go serve up. They also get better and better with each album.
Since the departure of founding member and Montana diasporist Joel Phelps, Silkworm have emphatically confounded their doubters and ratcheted down into a trio of considerable power. The sound of the four-man Silkworm phase -- Andy Cohen, Michael Dahlquist, Tim Midgett, and Phelps -- was intricate and chaotic, full of elaborate tension and heavy release. Between three songwriters, two guitars, and a very active bass, the records In the West (C/Z) and Libertine (El Recordo), are fractal; their attraction lies not just in the songs themselves, but in the multiplicity of voices jockeying for position.
Post-Phelps, free from the constraints of two-guitar collaboration, the band is a bit less complex but a lot more interesting. Silkworm's essential dynamic has shifted from one of intra-band tension, colliding parts and competing styles, to one of fierce integration.
Cohen's songwriting has flourished and his guitar work has caught fire, working virtuoso leads and powerhouse riffs with equal alacrity. Midgett's motion-heavy bass lines have become more prominent, taking on melodic and rhythmic roles that were less necessary (or at least less noticeable) in the two-guitar outfit.
Dahlquist's drumming -- always a highlight, especially since most Silkworm albums have been recorded by Steve Albini -- remains versatile, pounding like a beast or skittering like pebbles across a frozen pond as songs demand. The trio has been able to fuse adherence to a classic rock idiom with the near-ascetic refusal to rely on the conventional shortcuts of traditionalists or the shambolic innovations of indie rock to deliver the goods. What they leave out is always as important as what they put in.
Firewater, the trio's 1996 debut on Matador, is a double LP with a loose thematic link (alcohol figures in pretty much every song). The record marked their new sound: guitar rock stripped to raw specifics, unembellished, girded by righteous solos, propelled by rhythmic dynamism, and possessed of an abidingly serious tone. Even when they're funny, the songs are dead serious.
The unsentimental, often coarse lyrics move between Cohen's misanthropic character studies (meaning both studies of misanthropic characters, or character studies that are misanthropic) and Midgett's more impressionistic sketches.
On 1997's Developer, both writers are in top form: Cohen's AC/DC-riffic title track and elegiac "Goodnight Mr. Maugham" contrast nicely with Midgett's delicate "The City Glows" and playful "The Devil Is Beating His Wife." The record is dour, funny, casual, intense, refined, and raw. Above all, it sounds assured. That confidence lies at the heart of the band's appeal, and has carried them through to the more aggressive Blueblood.
The "new" Silkworm arrived right in the thick of the "post-rock" craze, fostered by an infamous Village Voice article which claimed that the possibilities of guitar-bass-drums had been more or less exhausted, and for a band's endeavors to be deemed valid in the future, they'd better sound like Tortoise. But Firewater, Developer, and Blueblood offer three stunning examples of just how alive the rock form can be, if assayed by able musicians with an appreciation for tradition and a desire to forge something new from it.
Unlike most bands I admire, Silkworm have always proven difficult to talk about. Two adjectives I most often arrive at to describe their music are "American" and "masculine" -- not particularly useful, I know. Though in these tremulous times both terms are viewed in a pejorative light, I beg to differ. An abiding lyrical concern (particularly in Cohen's songs) with the inner life of hard men presents a brave look at unvarnished maleness ("Havanas aren't free, nor's my ex-wife"); often contemptible, always interesting.
A rugged work ethic comes through: the exponent of punk disdain for mediocrity given form in a kind of artistic frontierism. Chronically dissatisfied, always pushing. The simple greatness of Silkworm's music is that it defies explication: Though it doesn't rock simply, It simply rocks.