Clip: The joys of Antietam are intense, dynamic
The joys of Antietam are intense, dynamic
By Greg Kot
Antietam's Tara Key once defined her guitar playing as "aerobics for the
short and nonmuscular." Key turns solos into wrestling matches, smashing
the strings until her fingers bleed and welts rise on her knees, hips and
elbows as she tosses her diminutive body around the stage.
The guitarist and her longtime bandmates, drummer Josh Madell and husband
and bassist Tim Harris, are a three-headed hurricane in concert, and seeing
the band perform live has always made their albums sound somewhat inferior.
But on "Victory Park" (Carrot Top), its seventh album in 20 years, the New
York trio sounds as comfortable and convincing as it ever has in the studio.
Key surfs dark waves of rolling rhythm with her guitar, biding her time as
she waits for the perfect breaker to come along and then hanging on for
dear life. This is surf music as reimagined by a bunch of landlocked former
art students, and it's a beautiful, mesmerizing and occasionally
Actually, the ocean was in close enough proximity during the recording to
influence the album's sound. The band retreated to a beach house in New
Jersey with producer Tara Jane O'Neil during the off-season for a week of
recording, and the relaxed atmosphere was liberating for all involved.
After releasing its sixth studio album, "Ear and Echo," in 1995, Antietam
tried and failed twice to record a follow-up. During that period, Key
recorded "Dark Edson Tiger," a guitar duet album with Rick Rizzo of
Eleventh Dream Day, with whom Antietam will share the stage May 16 at the
"People assumed that we'd broken up, but we were working the whole time,"
Key says. "We'd always face restrictions of time and money working in other
people's studios, and so we started working on learning how to make a
A wave of sobering events also washed over the band. Parents and friends
died, and the World Trade Center towers crumbled only a few blocks from the
apartment that Key and Harris share. "I've been humbled by a lot of things
that have nothing to do with music," Key says. "It made me appreciate what
a gift it was just to be alive and be able to play a guitar."
And to be able to write songs like the ones that ended up on "Victory Park."
"The songs on this record became like a hymnal for me, in a secular sense,"
she says. "They were a joyous expression of some things that were really
challenging in our personal lives. Tim and I traveled a lot to Italy in
recent years, and it reinforced the notion that we're just specks on a
timeline. To me it became more than just about breaking guitars to show
passion and energy. It meant channeling some of that intensity into making
more coherent songs."
Armed with knowledge and time, the "Victory Park" sessions felt like a
fresh start. "There weren't many people around, and it became like a cocoon
where we could create without any restrictions," Key says. "I was able to
sit there at 3 in the morning and come up with a guitar solo that was an
emotional reaction to an event that occurred, instead of being in a studio
six months later trying to call upon the energy that made me write the song
in the first place."
Key's voice--whether she's echoing a trumpet (and vice-versa) on "New
Parade," howling at fate on "Stowaway," or drifting like a lost angel from
a My Bloody Valentine album on "Skying"--displays a new strength and
confidence. Once her vocals were mixed so low they functioned as simply
another instrument in the mix, but now they're just prominent enough to
highlight the melodies lurking within the trio's instrumental workouts.
"We've been a wild, untamable animal, and I don't think we're tamed now,
per se, but I think we're a little more focused and confident about what we
do," she says. "You can put us in the race without blinders on and not have
to worry that we're going to jump out of the gate."
All bets are off when Key, Harris and Madell hit the stage, though.
"Playing guitar is still the best exercise I get," Key says when she's
reminded of the quote about six-string aerobics for the "short and
"The other night, before we got on stage, I was so wired I thought I'd
implode," she says. "It surprised me in a way; we'd been away for a while,
and I didn't know how I'd react. It felt like somebody had hit the `pause'
button for a few years, and it's finally back on. I couldn't stand still
and play guitar. I only wonder how it'll work when I'm 80."
Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.