From the beginning, Eric Bachmann warned, “There’s a chance that things will get weird — yeah, it’s a possibility.” He was probably talking about an awkward attempt at making a doomed relationship work, or alternately trying to salvage a friendship, but he could have just as easily been referencing the direction of his band, Archers of Loaf. To be clear, the Archers were pretty weird from the get-go — a group of indie rockers with a rough and tumble side, a clamorous sensibility and an almost fetishistic embrace of controlled chaos. But for most of the band’s career, this raw, noisy four-chord Superchunk-gone-Beefheart approach set the standard, and came to represent the curious and strangely effective duality the band perfected via their embrace of the imperfect.
Yet, following a relatively unsuccessful stint on a major label and three albums of reliably solid noise pop, the Archers of Loaf took to deconstruction. In recording White Trash Heroes, the group’s members abandoned their traditional roles within the band, save for Bachmann remaining lead vocalist, and took to instrument swapping. Aesthetically speaking, the songs that emerged from these sessions seemed to have the same basic elements as those on their previous albums, but at the same time, sounded nothing like them. Bachmann barked less and took to singing more in falsetto, or occasionally unintelligible, Tom Waits-like croaks. The songs were loud, but somehow less abrasive. White Trash Heroes even sounded, for lack of a better description, bluesy.
Only to a certain degree a continuation of the band’s trajectory to that point, White Trash Heroes was the oddest entry in the band’s catalog, and as their final release (for now) remains as such. And yet in many ways, it’s also the band’s most interesting album. It doesn’t hold together as strongly as Icky Mettle, but there are frequent flashes of brilliance that signify both a newfound maturity as well as a slight preview of the gothic Americana that Bachmann would embrace with Crooked Fingers. “Fashion Bleeds” is one such flash, an opening track that ushers in a darkened mood rather than a kick in the posterior as the Loaf had often preferred in the past. “Dead Red Eyes” is another, a slow-burning dirge that sets Bachmann’s vocals against droning keyboards for a solid two minutes before the rhythm section brings it back down to earth with an abrasive grit. And “Perfect Time” somehow balances the band’s muscular sensibility with an unconventionally pretty melody.
The album’s second half contains the two most inspired, even transcendent moments of the band’s career, but each one for very different reasons. “One Slight Wrong Move” shouldn’t be as catchy as it is; it clangs and rattles with a nightmarish percussive loop before it enters into a Stones-meets-Fugazi groove that simply slays, and ultimately breaks into a supremely bizarre vocodered chorus of “A hundred million people could be wrong.” The sum of its parts make very little sense together, which isn’t necessarily out of question for the band, really, but come together sublimely. The real stunner, though, is the closing title track, a nearly eight minute dirge that makes a slow build of throbbing basslines and escalating vocals, with Bachmann’s narration detailing simple ideas with heroic earnestness, achieving a climactic, lighters-in-the-air moment with its inspiring chorus: “It ends life, along the neon sign/ all speeding past, collide and crashing/ I’m in paradise.” There’s a simultaneous air of innocence and finality, and if there was a song to end the band’s career on, this was the one.
The second disc backing Merge‘s reissue of White Trash Heroes packs on the regular blend of b-sides, outtakes and demos, and more so than on the other reissues in the series, the demos here reveal a considerably different version of the album than what’s on the final product. While the songs obviously don’t carry the superior sound quality of the finished album, the flow of the demo is strangely cohesive, actually making more sense as one collection of songs, even if the elements seem a bit disparate on the album itself. Seven-inch single “Jive Kata,” likewise, is a fun track, though the b-sides reveal some even brighter curiosities. Instrumental “Walk of Shame” is spacious and pretty, as is the heroic “Untitled,” while the messy, drunken “Whooh!” is classic Archers mayhem.
Problematic tours and medical conditions led to the eventual end of Archers of Loaf’s first run, and for 12 years, that was the end of the band. Considering the duration of the band’s reunion at this point, it’s entirely possible that the Archers of Loaf aren’t content to leave White Trash Heroes as their last bit of recorded music. But even if it is, it’s a particularly strong and brave way to go, casting aside expectations and finding an interesting, comfortable middle ground between experimentation and maturity.