Underappreciated Album: Latimer

Underappreciated Album: Latimer – LP Title

With apologies to both greasy cheesesteaks and the cheesiness of the Dead Milkmen, I’ve got to be honest: whenever I think of Philadelphia, I inevitably begin to think of Latimer.

In the most basic sense, the band – a quartet from the City of Brotherly Love that recorded an EP and two proper records in the mid-1990s – just feels like the city. Their sound has a vital, indefinable sense of independence to it, a kind of reckless joy tempered with an inclination not to be pinned down to any particular point. But the music, which is as edgy as it is invigorating, is also entrenched in a kind of urban grime, with even the most emotive or well-initiated moments being undercut and sabotaged by dark sentiments and decay.

Lofty ruminations aside, though, one of Latimer’s most defining traits is one that defines countless great but unsung indie-rock bands: the clever interplay of two guitars. But this is more than just a fuzzy wall of dueling power chords. On LP Title, Latimer shows the band has an instinctive sense of how to create real depth and movement with six strings and a couple of cranked-up amps. Whether it’s rousing, distortion-heavy choruses or more subtle bridges where the guitars slink and weave around each other, there’s a real sense of how guitars can drive the beast.

Take for example the chiming chops of songs like “Neolida,” the overlapped and nearly entangled melodies of “Chicken the Goon,” or the crunchy refrains of the anthemic “Stabs the Reason” and the album-closing “Rek ‘O’ Kut.” Or the primordial guitar squalor and wail of “Dirgesque.” Or the angular shifts and guitar explosions of “Hold Down” and the bombastic “Poseur.” The list is pretty extensive and varied, especially for a record of no more than a dozen tracks.

There’s not a song on the disc where the guitars fall back on anything even as remotely predictable as the familiar series of quick power chords knocked out in a cloud of dust. Instead of just resorting to the quiet-loud-quiet-loud Pixies/Nirvana-knockoff riffs that dominated radio airwaves when LP Title was released in 1995, Latimer defines its sound more carefully and with far fewer formulas.

There are moments when the songs are vaguely reminiscent of the less experimental explorations of Sonic Youth, and others when they hint at the two-guitar textures of bands like Chavez, but the band’s sound is really their own.

This is a testament not only to the band’s guitar work, but a surprisingly consistent and inventive rhythm section, the best use of two vocalists you’ve heard in a while, and a shrewd attention to songwriting. The band was arguably in the best shape of their short career on LP Title and, without a doubt, it shows.

On “Carolida,” one of the sharpest tracks on the disc, the band’s drummer kicks off the song by thrashing and pummeling his kit to oblivion as the rest of the band waits patiently on the sidelines for their cue. When they finally do come in, after a short breath of anticipation, they do something incredibly unexpected, displaying restraint and clever timing and allowing the song to continue to build instead of just erupting into a cacophony of shrieking guitars or throat-ripping vocals. The band pulls a similar trick with “Stabs the Reason” – the song that precedes “Carolida” – where verses continue to grow in volume, scope, and intensity with every stop and stagger, instead of waxing Vesuvian on the first step out of the gate.

On the other hand, “Stringbender,” which falls near the close of the record, illustrates the same attention to craft by going to the other end of the spectrum. The record’s shortest song begins as an elegiac and heartfelt aside – complete with quiet vocals and accompaniment from piano – and slowly builds into a kind of reserved march, quietly closing before so much as a full chorus. While listening to the track, you’re reminded of how, despite the loud guitars, the tender details can be found all over the record: from the shuffling acoustic guitars of “Chicken the Goon” to the reflective digital delay and strange dissonance of “Hold Down” to the eerie silences of “Cold Front Killer.”

There’s also something to be said for the band’s sense of down-to-earth lyricism, which plays a prominent role here despite the fact that the vocals are sometimes shouted over a dirge of guitars. Nothing would in any way lead a rock scholar to say Latimer is setting its music to poetry, but the substance of the record’s lyrics is far from just half-hearted or second-hand.

A personal favorite is the line that begins “Kiss 120,” a bitter and angry little song that seems to give play-by-play accounts of a romantic quarrel: “Pull the sheets back / I found you boring / Wake the dogs up, I want to see a fight.”

But, lyricism and careful composition aside, the band is best when they don’t hold back in unleashing a very loud – albeit measured – sonic assault. The record closes with the carefree stomp and sway of “Rek ‘O’ Kut” and an incredible unlisted secret track that could get even the tone-deaf and arrhythmic among us jumping up and down. Both songs – one of which features World Domination head and former Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen in a supporting role – are spirited reminders of why this is a record that is best played with the volume on your stereo turned up to agitate-the-downstairs-neighbors levels.

The secret track, however, does inadvertently provide a little post-script for the band. After the closing notes of “Rek ‘O’Kut,” a radio announcer of sorts chimes in, saying, “Now that record sounded like it was just done yesterday in the recording studio. Talk about enduring and timeless classics.” While the clip is merely a little aural bridge before the tongue-in-cheek madness of the secret track, the mention of timeless classics is a reminder of how LP Title never really had its time in the spotlight.

Despite some critical praise – and a couple of glowing paragraphs in Trouser Press’ encyclopedia of 90s rock – Latimer seemed to fade into the backdrop of Philadelphia after releasing their sophomore effort, Live from Sour City, in 1997. Too bad. All jokes about the Dead Milkmen or Ben Franklin or Rocky aside, Philadelphia could probably use a great band to capture the national attention and call their own

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