Slint – Spiderland (box set)

The box-set/reissue craze has given new meaning to the terms “wretched excess.” Much of it is overwhelming – for instance, consider the seemingly endless collection of “official bootleg” boxes from the likes of Miles Davis (mostly essential) and Bob Dylan (mostly filler). Likewise, ponder the scads of reissues of ancient albums in “re-mastered,” “re-mixed,” or “surround sound” formats… yes, sometimes a good re-master or remix will bring new life to an old classic (the King Crimson reissues are a great example), but more often than not there seems to be no point of the reissue besides grabbing some new cash from old fans.

Bottom line – most reissues and box sets are made possible because the labels mine a volume of material recorded by bands that were fundamentally prolific, often with long and storied careers that deserved deeper exploration.

Then along came Slint. It was surprising to hear that Slint is “celebrating” the 23rd anniversary of the release of the (utterly indispensable – we’ll get to that in a minute) album Spiderland with a lavish (and at $160, pretty expensive) box including a re-mastered version of the original CD, a CD of outtakes, some vinyl with pretty much the same music, and the documentary Breadcrumb Trail on DVD.  That seems like a lot of stuff from a band that laid a grand total of 17 songs on tape during their four years of on-again, off-again playing.

Is it worth it?

Yes… and no.

Let’s start by saying that if you do not already possess a copy of Spiderland then something is terribly wrong with you. Even after 23 years the record continues to dazzle, poking the imagination and rocking the room with its quasi-math-rock interludes punctuated with brain-melting sonic assaults. Yes, the Pixies were already mastering the soft-loud-soft idiom, but Slint turned it on its heels, reducing the songs to bare bones, creating an uneasy but effective atmosphere of pleasure and pain. Without Slint I can’t imagine that Mogwai or Godspeed! You Black Emperor would have blossomed like they did. Whatever “post-rock” is, Slint invented it. This album is timeless and deserves to be in your collection.

But, as mentioned above, this was not the most prolific band in the universe. Two proper albums were released, the first of which was tragically forgettable despite (or perhaps because of) the production of Steve Albini. It certainly did not help that Slint tended to be publicity-adverse. The documentary demonstrates these four guys were denizens of the basement, with very few live performances under their belt. Two of them in particular – drummer Britt Walford and guitarist Brian McMahan – were quite possibly certifiable nutcases. (Walford, especially, comes across as utterly unhinged and asocial throughout the movie. McMahan had to check himself into a “hospital” after the recording of this album.) With minimal touring it’s no shock that they had trouble selling their records when they had to depend on college radio to get the message across. And it didn’t help matters that the band kept breaking up. One of those breakups occurred immediately prior to the release of Spiderland, ensuring a fate of relative obscurity upon release.

But to paraphrase the old saw about the Velvet Underground, only three or four thousand copies of the album were sold in those early days, but everyone who bought it probably started a band. Aided by an inclusion in the soundtrack of the 1995 film Kids the record began to gain a foothold in the culture, and its influence was fully realized. Essential? Yeah, it is.  As Albini put it in his review of the album in Melody Maker: “Spiderland is flawless – ten f***ing stars.”

So, again, is it worth it?

Again: Yes, and no.

Yes, if you have to own everything Slint ever (and I mean EVER) did, this is worth it. Having a copy of the Breadcrumb Trail DVD is worth it. The re-mastering of the original CD does seem to be cleaner, punchier and more forceful than the original. Yeah, definitely worth it on those levels.

However, if you are the less obsessive fan, then spare yourself a few bucks. The original CD is just fine and can be had for less than $15. The DVD will eventually hit the street and won’t push things into the $30 range, and besides, Touch and Go is releasing a less expensive/expansive combo of the LP/DVD or CD/DVD in June. Those are the only real reasons to own this box.

Just know this: you must own this album because you will play it again. And again.

[Touch and Go]