Silkworm – Libertine

5 out of 5

Label: El Recordo

Produced by: Steve Albini (engineered by)

Somehow arriving the same year as the punkified In The West, Libertine finds the group taking its first stabs at the more jangle rock that would dominate followup Firewater, but as cast through the wandering structures of their early work, very much influenced by then-member Joel Phelps’ songwriting.  Interestingly, it arrives at a sound I feel the band would circle ’round to on later (fantastic) albums like It’ll Be Cool, though at that point they’d figured out how to jam a decade of awesomeness into three minutes.

The density of the songs on Libertine, minus In The West’s nervy edge, made it an infrequent listen in my Silkworm youth; after opener There Is A Party In Warsaw Tonight, the album seems hard to grasp on to, setting its hooks slightly behind lead-in beats or guitar wrangles, and Phelps, taking the vocals on about half the tracks, has a nasally voice that certainly takes some getting used to.  West front-loaded the disc with devil-horns worthy riffage before getting to a Phelps slowburn, so it’s an easier learning curve; Libertine, being Silkworm’s most consistent disc from the early years, has no such front-loading.  But: it has no middle loading and no back-loading, either.  Because after you’ve taken the disc’s temperature, and have gotten used to (or – gawsh – even started to like) Phelps’ singing, it turns out the entire album is gold.  Each track sticks out, with a notable core riff, interesting lyrics, and empassioned vocals mostly (besides Phelps) from Tim Midgett, but with Andy Cohen covering tracks 1 and 2.  And amidst many of the epics here, with their complex visuals and stirring narratives, we get some blazing rockers like The Cigarette Lighters or Wild In My Day.

That this was only two years into the group’s tenure, and that it signaled their ability to innovate on a theme and keep up the quality for every release following, is pretty amazing.  Libertine might not offer the “ease into it” listening experience of some of those followups, but that’s really only because each track is just as good as another, adding up to one of the best albums in a career of best albums.