"Vitus Tinnitus," the latest from Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Archers of Loaf, is a strange little release -- six live cuts from a single night of a tour that's probably still in progress, and two slight remixes from an album that's only a few months out of the pipe (the massively underappreciated "All the Nation's Airports"). Deep as we are into this age of music as just another consumer good -- like snack-size cheese dogs or glitter-filled yogurt packs, for instance -- it's hard not to think of mysterious mini-releases like this one as the latest strike in some corporate lackey's new marketing offensive.
But this is the Archers of Loaf we're talking about here -- not Alanis, or even Bush or Sponge, for that matter. If there was ever a band that seemed to be playing music just for the sake of playing music, then it's AOL. They come off as rabid fans of their own songs, and though that may sound trite, try saying the same thing about the great calculating mass of ironically detached musical carpetbaggers that are currently clogging the airwaves. As Archers' frontman Eric Bachmann laments here on "The Greatest of All Time" (from 1995's "Vee Vee"), "The underground is overcrowded."
There are two crucial sides to the Archers of Loaf: a hoarse, angsty stomp and a layered, honest but uneasy beauty. "Vitus Tinnitus" captures them both well. The first six songs (most of which appeared originally on "Vee Vee") are from an October '96 show at the famed Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and when Archers aren't busy shouting out "thank yous" and "hellos" to assorted friends and opening bands, they're definitely working the stomp. "Harnessed in Slums," "Underdogs of Nipomo" and "Nostalgia" are all about spit-covered microphones, broken strings and bassist Matt Gentling's amphetamined antics. They sound pretty good, too -- all the live tracks on "Vitus" are mixed well enough to preserve the live energy level without sacrificing the Archers' constant subtext of buzzing and off-kilter but always precise guitar adornments.
It's this subtext -- the layers of strangely melancholy guitars that ascend and descend throughout the majority of AOL's songs -- that really defines the band. "Vocal Shrapnel" and "Scenic Pastures," the two remixes from "All the Nations Airports" that close "Vitus," are perfect examples. The guitars on both songs have been mixed higher than the original versions, emphasizing the duel and the dialogue between Bachmann's and rhythm guitarist Eric Johnson's unique styles. On the first time around, neither song sounds particularly different from its original incarnation -- a mere trading of tweaky stomp for a lush pop sound -- but after a few listens and a little reading between the lines, it's like listening to a conversation in the Archers' very own secret language. The songs here, whether they're remixed or live and loud, sound like they're just how the band wants them.