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. It’s a stamp that could easily induce cringing these days, with memories of the stilted, major label-concocted garage rock revival spearheaded by all those “The” bands at the turn of the millennium, a movement that now, ironically, proves more dated than its original wellspring of nearly five decades ago. Reflecting the authenticity and unassuming nature of their local scene, Spider Bags holds refreshingly true to the genre’s roots, their raggedness genuine, not manufactured.
Picking up on recent albums’ nods toward power-pop, Frozen Letter kicks off at an impossibly breakneck pace; the dust storm from the gloriously shabby opener, “Back With You Again In The World”, through the rockabilly-laced “Japanese Vacation”, and “Chem Trails”’ technicolour chaos blows by in under eight minutes. Indeed, when McGee haltingly chants, “blows right through me”, on the trio’s middle track, he ain’t kidding. The Bags’ cover of Texas-based garage rocker John Wesley Coleman’s “Summer Of ‘79” is largely faithful to the original and it’s sassy chorus of “why you wanna be a rollin’ stone?...you weren’t there, you weren’t alive” serves as a fine kiss-off to the less-than-sincere members of their ilk. McGee’s brazen howls here bat an eye toward Roky Erickson’s kings of Texas garage, The 13th Floor Elevators, a vein tapped with even more fervour later in the album.
The sprawling “Coffin Car” hearkens back to previous albums’ rambling numbers and marks the hinge point at which Frozen Letter becomes a tale of two sides; aside from its rousing, Violent Femmes-shaded coda, the Bags’ display their more exploratory side here onward. Acid-washing their bluesy garage sound with a coating of psychedelia, lyrics pointed toward the elliptical and grotesque, the album’s second half puts paid McGee’s desire to make a “weird, trippy record. While the underbelly of crude, fuzzy electric guitar melodies ensures the folksy “Walking Bubble” retains an appropriate dose of volatility, its lines, “why trust the morning to the sky? / is there a reason why?...flesh on top and bone beneath”, may very well lift the cover of what McGee is striking at with Frozen Letter. Forget what’s on the surface, forget even the inherent construction of things – it’s what you make of them and do with them that matters most.
Perhaps Frozen Letter’s most intriguing numbers, and practically worth the price of admission alone, the closing duo of “We Got Problems” and “Eyes Of Death” show Spider Bags pointed in a new direction. Stretching out but never meandering and exhibiting a tightness without sacrificing their rawness, the pair are ultraviolet, tie-dyed atom bombs. Featuring bawdy snatches of wah-pedal effects, an unholy stew of guitar interplay, with McGee yowling in the former and a deranged deadpan in the latter, it’s a tad Roky, a pinch Iggy and The Stooges, and delightfully all Spider Bags.
If there’s any niggling at Frozen Letter, it’s the wish that there was more of it to help balance its two hemispheres. But really, what kind of criticism is we want more? If anything, it’s a compliment of the highest order. Brief as it may be, Frozen Letter covers a lot of ground for Spider Bags – it has them gleefully offering us tasty kibbles of what they’ve always excelled at while also boldly paving themselves a new path forward.