Chapel Hill’s music scene has been relatively quiet since Mammoth Records founder Jay Faires sold his label to, of all companies, Disney in 1998. The label that housed the Blake Babies, Chainsaw Kittens, Joe Henry, and Victoria Williams was eventually folded into Disney’s Hollywood Records in 2003, and suddenly the city that gave rise to Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, and the Ben Folds Five was no longer the “next Seattle.”
Even with the hype machine gone, however, Chapel Hill has been quietly churning out a number of excellent bands. Chief among these is Spider Bags, who in five years have risen to become one of the must-see bands in the area. It’s been a quiet evolution – their 2007 folk-rock debut A Celebration of Hunger didn’t create too much buzz, but 2009’s Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World unleashed a more fuzzed-out rockabilly sound which got them larger notice outside of their home state. Their raucous, alcohol-fueled live shows didn’t hurt either, and they garnered some serious street cred when Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles proclaimed them the greatest band in the world.
Now the band has released their third full-length, Shake My Head (on Chapel Hill’s own Odessa Records) and it’s pure gold; a 10-track, 35 minute barnburner of an album which eschews the earlier country sound in favor of a harder-rocking sound. To make the record, the group traveled to a house in Memphis, invited dozens of friends and fellow musicians, and partied/recorded until the album was done. While frontman Dan McGee spent considerable time mixing down the final product, this recorded-live-at-the-house-party feeling permeates the album. It’s part of the reason the band is compared to early Replacements - you’re waiting for the music to stop and a megaphoned voice to say “This is the Memphis Police, the party is over.”
All of which wouldn’t matter if the music sounded sloppy or poorly written. But songs like the leadoff track, “Keys to the City,” are instead remarkably tight, well-recorded, and easy to stomp your feet to. It captures the feeling you had at that college house party where the band was playing raw, sped-up versions of Exile on Main Street tunes, minus the lost hearing and hangovers. The vibe continues on the second track “Simona La Ramona” as the music segues to a countrified-Pixies sound (even the title evokes something Frank Black might write). “Friday Night,” the first single, swings back to boozy rock as McGee sings about two of every rock singer’s favorite subjects, fighting and women, repeating the chorus “Baby it’s tough falling out of love.”
While the band is sometimes compared to other “southern sounding” bands like Drive-By Truckers, they also invoke a less obvious actual southern band – Austin’s Butthole Surfers. In their less experimental moods the Surfers also turned out extraordinarily well-crafted psychedelic blues, and McGee’s baritone warble calls to mind the vocals of Gibby Haynes. This is most evident on songs like “Shape I Was In” and “Standing On A Curb,” in which beer joint jams meet wailing sound effects as McGee yelps lyrics like “Going to the landfill, going to the post / Are you a man, or are you a ghost.”
The Surfers’ sound also pops up on the final two psych-country tunes on Shake My Head. “Daymare” is the slowest song on the record, with fuzzed-out banjos and distorted harmonicas accompanying McGee as he ponders “if I was ever alive.” At more than five minutes, the final track, “The Moon is a Schoolgirl” is an epic for the band. It’s also the most strikingly complex song, and the albums only downer. McGee laments to an unseen woman as the band “sha la las” behind him and innumerable guitars layer a wall of sound around him.
Members of Spider Bags have gone back to their lives following the recording of Shake My Head. McGee is father of a young child and stays near Chapel Hill. Other band members have gone back to their day job, and the band seems to have no official website. Here’s hoping that the voodoo they worked while recording in Memphis can be duplicated, and that we haven’t heard the last of this band.