"How much did you pay for your Rock-n-Roll t-shirt, that proves you were there, that you heard of them first?"
We live for it. We dredge the darkest corners of local dives and the farthest digital recesses of internet-only released singles for it. We polish it in our ever-growing collection of split 7-inches and limited release 12-inch-with-special-colored-vinyl-pressings. We feed it monthly, weekly, nightly, trudging diligently into clubs and tinned-over alleyways masquerading as clubs looking for it.
It is the greatest band in the world, yes. But more importantly, it is the greatest band in the world, and you've never heard of them.
We live for it. Ours is a prestige-based culture, a meritocracy of the obscure. Our social graces, such that they are, are built upon our casual knowledge of Montreal nine-piece ensembles and the latest, greatest in Scottish youth angst.
This is how we work. We may not admit it in public, but this is how we work.
As such, I take a certain pleasure in Sharkquest. (See, when you ask "Who?" that just gives me that much more cred. I can't lose!) Sharkquest, for some reason beyond my comprehension, are simply not lauded as one would think was their due. They just don't get any press at all, from what I can tell, and that I just can't fathom. They're on Merge, which is pretty solid label stock in indie-rock circles. They play unbelievably brilliant music. They don't sing.
You'd think everyone and their mothers would be harping this band, but they're not. Hell, I can't even find their latest release, Man on Stilts, on CDNow. That's just weird.
Where to begin? Sharkquest are not a pop band. They are not a rock band. They are not the kind of band you think of when you say "indie." But they're not the kind of band you think about when you say "post-rock" either. So, what do you say about them?
They're brilliant. They're phenomenal. They're quite possibly the best band in existence, with a nod over to the few dozen members of Godspeed, You Black Emperor! You should know more about Sharkquest, but you don't.
Sharkquest released a debut in 1998 called Battle of the Loons, and it was great. A super-group of sorts, a who's who of the UNC-Chapel Hill scene, SQ features Laird Dixon on guitar (he plays with a picked style that's about half Chet Atkins and half flamenco), Scott Goolsby on "guitars and pedals" (more or less a straight guitar sound looped through some delays and reverb, a little tremolo by the sound of it, and a wah-wah pedal for good measure) and Chris Eubank on cello, bass and keyboards. Sara Bell brings in an eclectic mix of banjo, mandolin, another guitar (hollow body) and pianos while Groves Willer rounds out the unit on drums, percussion and "rattlesnake tails."
As you might imagine, the sound was quite unique, and quite stunning. Imagine a more compact version of Godspeed!, only from the Carolina lowlands rather than Quebec. There's not exactly a twang to the sound, per se, but there's enough of an obvious influence from early country sounds to turn the grass around the band a light shade of blue. Battle of the Loons was a wonderful little serenade through the southern countryside, a meandering and aimless walk down an aural road less traveled, full of pleasant little detours here or there, but always sticking pretty close to the oak-lined curves of the big lane.
Of course, after a while, that strength of aimlessness and meandering became a bit of a hindrance. Every song seemed to start off with Dixon finding a nice little rhythm to pluck out, Goolsby, Bell and Eubank falling into it, Willer serving more as a filling metronome rather than an actual instrument. Not to disrespect the music in anyway as it was, in fact, great. But anyone who claims to be able to distinguish Baii from Armadillotron or from In A Dive on demand is either lying or a member of the band.
That's why Man on Stilts is so damned wonderful. It's always a personal thrill to see a band develop and coalesce into something more than it previously was. Watching Superchunk turn the corner from On the Mouth to Foolish, for example. This new disc is like that.
Man on Stilts opens with Chicken Strings, and from the get-go it's a more full sound than the previous release. Willer launches the song, and the disc, with a full on staccato burst of rim shots, announcing his presence with an authority that was completely missing from Battle of the LoonsM. And personally, there's nothing more ingratiating that percussion that is unsure of itself. Drums are the spine of a band, and dammit, there's nothing worse than a palsied band that can't seem to stand up straight and proud.
As a whole, I get the impression that touring together for a while and working together as a band, rather than getting together to record the occasional jam session, has worked wonders innumerable for the 'Quest. This disc is simply cohesive. It's the same general map of songwriting, but it's much more sure of itself. There's a greater feel of orchestration behind the individual songs this time around, with Kell approaching a boundary at which it might be best described as a minimalist symphony for cello and effected guitar rather than a "rock song." It's a truly powerful piece of music, and I'd hate to think the entire rest of the world went without it for want of me telling.
For the most part, Man on Stilts simply picks up where Battle of the Loons rambled off into the forest and tracks a more deliberate path along the same shady lane. It's a wonderful record from an equally wonderful band, and I can only hope that a few people take the chance on it. As it stands right now, Sharkquest are probably the most under appreciated band that I know of, and that's sad.