Reading the liner notes to Merge’s recent reissue of Archers of Loaf’s Vee Vee, one thing becomes clear: AoL was the alternative Kinks. Underappreciated despite their consistently solid songwriting and guitarwork, AoL meant a whole heck of a lot to a select few people, and they all want to remind you how this influential band did not get enough love "back in the day."
When it comes to indie rock, I always feel this twang of guilt when I don’t lose my head over a band that people care obsessively about. I’m not saying I don’t like the Archers. I do. But the first time I put on Vee Vee (after admittedly enjoying Icky Mettle, a record which some folks claim is inferior to Vee Vee), all I could focus on was what wasn’t there. The Promise Ring wrote better hooks. Jawbreaker shouted better lyrics. Fugazi was fuckin’ Fugazi. When it comes to ’90s indie rock, I skew emo, thanks.
Eventually, I broke through that malaise. And I started to hear Vee Vee for what it was, sans indie cred hype: A pretty good ’90s guitar rock record that subverts expectations. Icky Mettle opens with “Web in Front,” arguably one of AoL’s catchiest songs. Vee Vee, though, opens with the slow, semi-psychedelic “Step into the Light.” It’s not especially Loafy, as the guitars are dreamy and the vocals are cooed. But 40 seconds in, the six-strings take on a slightly ominous tone that saturates the rest of the track. “Harnessed in Slums” kicks the album of properly, with Eric Bachmann spewing the throaty bile that fans love so much.
“Harnessed in Slums” showcases what made people love this band. The guitars roar almost as loudly as Bachmann. The drums pound out thunder. The remaster job doesn’t gloss anything up too much, leaving suitably dry, unfussy production to present the song without comment or enhancement. The record rips through hit after shouldabeen hit, and each one epitomizes indie rock’s former grit in all its glory.
Vee Vee is nearly a perfect record. Nearly. Bachmann tends to favor stream of conscious imagery, which means sometimes he pulls stuff out of his ass. Still, his success ratio is pretty good when it comes to firing off angry lines, although that exact percentage is debatable since AoL did not and does not like to publish lyrics. When Bachmann does come through loud and clear, like on “Greatest of All Time,” it’s not necessarily for the best (“He was out of luck / Because nobody gave a fuck”). Other tracks have little blemishes, whether it be the slightly out of time electrical beeps on “Nevermind the Enemy” or the useless hidden track after “Underachievers March and Fight Song.” Otherwise, Vee Vee is quality indie rock.
While the Vee Vee reissue is a great way to introduce the Archers to a new audience, completionists might yet be satisfied by a second disc of rarities like “Smoking Pot in the City” or “Bacteria.” The back half of the bonus tracks turn out to just be alternate versions of Vee Vee songs, though, and while they’re interesting from an academic perspective, they’re by no means essential listening.
Still, though, Vee Vee, and the Archers, holds up quite nicely once divorced from its own legend. It’s not as immediately accessible as other ’90s alt-rock records, but the Archers aren’t the first great band to have that problem. Just look at the Kinks.