CD Review: Antietam

Opus Mixtum Carrot Top
Music •••• Sound •••½

How does a band manage to be consistently excellent for better than two decades, record and tour on a regular basis, cross paths with a couple of indie-rock icons, and still wind up to be virtually unknown?

You might want to ask Antietam leader Tara Key that question. Her band had a few moments in the sun during the late 1980s - around the time it worked with a still-formative Yo La Tengo - and releases have leveled off since then. Now comes Opus Mixtum, an epic double CD that might be the first step of a comeback. Or it might be a last stab at immortality. Either way, it reaffirms Antietam's standing as one of the lost treasures of American indie-rock.

If you don't know Key and crew (and the odds strongly suggest that you don't), suffice it to say that they're in the same general ballpark with the best of the "thinking person's guitar-hero bands" - and that means Yo La Tengo (whose founders Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley produced Antietam's third album, Burgoo), Luna, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth. And yes, Key is a good enough guitarist to withstand all those comparisons: Her solos are full of warm distortion, left turns, and cheap thrills. But the emotion always comes first, even on the instrumentals. This set's 9-minute finale, "Tierra del Fuego," sports a long, tense buildup with cellos and rhythm loops (the latter a rarity for this flesh-and-blood band), and the two solo outbursts are brief but cathartic, lending a deep-blue finish to a generally upbeat album.

Yet Antietam tends to be more pop-friendly than most of the above-named bands. In fact, I suspect that Key is too modest about her hook-writing gifts, since she prefers to keep the production rough. With one more coat of varnish, "On the Humble" would practically scream Fleetwood Mac. But it's just as well that it doesn't, because the garagey sound is part of the picture; it just makes quick rockers like "RPM" all the more energizing.

Key's voice is likewise quite persuasive in its unpolished way, at times suggesting that of a fellow indie hero, ex-Come leader Thalia Zedek. And her lyrics find non-obvious ways to make their points. On "It's Not About You," she hits someone with this zinger: "Why does Avalon make me sing along? / I haven't got a clue, but it's not about you." Okay, you have to be a music fan to get the reference (to a Roxy Music album that's synonymous with romance), but just saying "I'm not in love with you" wouldn't have had the same ring.

Originally planned as two separate CDs, the set winds up with the first disc heavy on the louder, poppish songs and the second disc mostly atmospheric and instrumental. (There's overlap on both; one of the catchiest rockers, "Time Creeps," is saved for Disc 2). And there are in fact a few instrumentals too many, as "Tierra del Fuego" is good enough to make some of the others redundant. But at the very least - considering that the first disc is an immediate knockout, while the second disc is largely a grower - Opus Mixtum is one-and-a-half of the best indie-rock albums you'll hear this year.

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