Flying just below the radar for more than 20 years, but always making uncompromising music and maintaining a deeply devoted fan base throughout the world, Antietam play raw rock and roll that is nearly impossible to define.
Antietam was born from the ashes of Louisville, Kentucky’s original punk band, the Babylon Dance Band (1978-1983), powered by guitarist Tara Key and bassist Tim Harris. That band released only one seven-inch single in its time, but they toured extensively throughout the Midwest and East Coast and quickly made a name for themselves. The Village Voice called Key “the best female guitarist this side of the Atlantic.” (Twenty-five years later a writer in that same paper, unconcerned with gender or geography, asked, “Did I mention that Tara Key is the best guitarist in the world?”) And Mark Jacobson of Esquire wrote, “Tara Key is my fave guitar hero.” That sort of hyperbole has continuously followed Key and her playing throughout her career.
The Babylon Dance Band disintegrated in the early 80’s, although Matador Records revived them in 1994 with the Four on One album, and Harris and Key relocated to New York in 1984 to form Antietam. Bold Beginnings: A History of Louisville Punk, a recent compilation of Louisville bands from this era on Noise Pollution Records (2007), documents some of the BDB's blistering early demo recordings.
The early version of Antietam (named for the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history) was a sprawling and intense musical experiment, with two full-time bassists and a jazz drummer pitching a rhythmic miasma against Key’s six-string howl. The band released two albums on Homestead Records in the classic period of that label alongside legendary groups like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.
In the late 80’s, the group repurposed themselves as a power trio, and in 1990, released Burgoo on LA imprint Triple X Records (the house that Jane’s Addiction built). It was produced by Georgia and Ira of Yo La Tengo and focused on the new vision of the band, built around the songwriting partnership of Key and Harris. The trio Antietam’s sound was still unique, but channeled a more direct rock and roll vibe, now drawing on the duo’s punk rock history as well as diverse influences like Neil Young, David Bowie, Dead Moon, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Funkadelic and Eno’s ambient albums. Drummer Josh Madell joined the group in 1991 and thus we enter the modern era of Antietam. Opus Mixtum on Carrot Top Records is the fifth full-length released by this trio. With each album they have gotten closer to the essence of what keeps the band vibrant and inspired so many years after most have fallen by the wayside.
Part of their ongoing inspiration may lie in the variety of side-projects that these musicians have undertaken, from Key’s two well-received “solo” albums released on Homestead in the mid-90’s (neither album was solo by any stretch of the imagination, and both Harris and Madell figured prominently, but these records allowed Key to explore a more acoustic, songwriterly approach to her craft, with a coterie of sidemen on strings and keys and horns), to her instrumental collaboration with Rick Rizzo of Chicago stalwarts Eleventh Dream Day (resulting in the Dark Edson Tiger album released in 2000 on Thrill Jockey), to Harris’s “lead cello” work with local psychedelic pop band The Special Pillow, to Madell’s songwriting (and drumming) for pop-punk girl group Tralala.
All these experiences and more went into the new Antietam album. Seventeen years on in the current trio’s collaboration, the group decided to throw all of their passions and experiences into the mix and see what happened. Over the years they have made fierce live recordings (and their stage show has always been their calling card), and quiet acoustic recordings, they have crafted focused three-minute pristine pop and sprawling instrumental ambience, but never before has the group chosen simply not to choose, and let the music find its own way.
Originally, the double-CD, triple-LP Opus Mixtum was supposed to be two separate, distinct releases: one a powerful rock record tracked at the band’s new home-away-from-home, Brooklyn’s Seaside Lounge, with producer (and now auxiliary live band member) Josh Clark, tracked on two-inch tape in a beautiful live room and finally allowing the band to truly capture the fire of their live performances; and the other a sprawling, loopy and diverse instrumental album constructed piece by piece in Tara and Tim’s digital home studio. Somewhere along the way the albums became tangled together.
The title Opus Mixtum comes from a method of laying brick in ancient Rome that combined rectangular and diagonal patterns, but the band uses it to connote the mix of three styles -- Antietam rock, the acoustic pop of Tara Key solo releases, and the instrumental soundtracks of their lives. Piece in Mark Howell’s horns, Katie Gentile’s violins, and Rick Rizzo on stunt guitar and the album flows effortlessly through its varying moods -- instrumental passages disappear into hooky pop, Tara's defining guitar is enveloped by Hammond organ or a lush string passage, and then the pounding rock and roll of the classic trio punches through. So you get pop with “Turn It on Me,” rock with “Pennants and Flags,” and just pure melody with “March Echo” and “Steel G.” As they say in Louisville, if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.