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Dope Smokers: Spider Bags Venture to the Dark Side on ‘Frozen Letter’

Spider Bags / Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: August 05, 2014
Label: Merge

Strange things are brewing in the brain of Spider Bags frontman Dan McGee. On Frozen Letter, the group’s arresting fourth album (excluding a singles collection), he’s occasionally scary, sometimes goofy and often cryptic, radiating seedy charisma without straining for effect. Whether McGee is grasping for insight or proffering cheap thrills—most likely it’s both—he’s impossible to ignore.

On Spider Bags’ 2007 debut, A Celebration of Hunger, the North Carolina-based crew specialized in tattered, self-conscious alt-country. “Waking Up Drunk,” perhaps their best-known song, deftly showcased an unreliable narrator, but was easily misconstrued as a dumb celebration of excess — much like the band’s name itself, which references heroin. Is that supposed to be funny? Cool? Defiant? It’s none of the above. There’s no up side to hard drugs, cool junkie stereotypes aside.

Simultaneously playful and earnest, Frozen Letter evokes a down-home Replacements in its vivid, disheveled vignettes. Guitarist McGee and deputies Steve Oliva (bass) and Rock Forbes (drums) – a perfect action-hero pseudonym for sure – ably span peppy garage rock, lovely acoustic folk and doomy psychedelia, but the playing takes a back seat to the vocals. Leaving his slapdash early yowling behind, McGee has evolved into a deceptively powerful singer with a no-bullshit directness Iggy Pop would admire. From the hypnotic and unsettling “Eyes of Death” to the puzzling toe-tapper “Japanese Vacation,” he now seems less a performer than a genuinely troubled guy trying to show how it’s all going down.

The opening track, “Back with You Again in the World,” is an unassuming masterpiece of sneaky intent. Snappy and short, the catchy gem finds McGee pledging, “I will always be honest,” and, “You know I’ll do what I promise,” which initially sounds responsible and reassuring. That’s no guarantee of a positive outcome, however. What if honest means unkind? What if the promise is a threat? Later, in the sludgy “We Got Problems,” he croons ominously, “Got my baby’s blood/ On my shoulder/ Might be looking young/ But I’m always getting older,” amplifying the creeping unease.

Cloaked in a distinctly unsavory aura, Frozen Letter embodies uncertainty, with images of “a lonely silver spoon” and “crack in the pipe I’m smoking” pointing to big trouble. McGee may not know where he’s going on his murky head trip, but he’s a compelling enough guide that you want to follow him.