Like her part-time collaborator – Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo – Tara Key could quite easily and understandably have packed away the guitars some time ago, content in the knowledge that a lengthy ongoing struggle had yielded a commendable body of work. Since the late-‘70s, through the Babylon Dance Band, solo recordings, cross-pollinations with Yo La Tengo, inspired wordless interloping with Rizzo and – most crucially – leading Antietam, Key has proved her worth many times over. However, the fact that her muse is still reaping rich creative rewards this late into a long career gives good enough reason to keep the amps from the attic. Not content with delivering Antietam’s excellent and eclectic Opus Mixtum double-album in 2008 and the divine Double Star LP with Rizzo earlier this year, Key (backed by long-time Antietam bandmates Tim Harris and Josh Madell) now delivers the compact and melodically hard-wired Tenth Life with no loss in momentum.
Partly-named in self-deprecating reference to Antietam’s beyond nine lives survival since forming in 1984, Tenth Life is seemingly both a conscious and unconscious reaction to the wide-reach of Opus Mixtum and the measured beauty of Double Star. In short, it feels more like a well-cut rehearsal-room recording rather than a deep studio exploration. Condensed into ten tightly-wound and stylistically jogged-on-the-spot nuggets, Tenth Life is both a stripped-back as well as a reaching-out collection. Boiling things down to a duel between gnarly ‘70s-flavoured proto-punk and new wave pop, this could be Antietam’s heavily-smudged answer to Television’s underrated Adventure, Patti Smith’s ragged Radio Ethiopia and Blondie’s tunefully sharp Parallel Lines.
Opening gems “Numbered Days” and “Something’s Gonna Give” might be two of Antietam’s most instantaneous numbers, with highly lyrical guitars underpinning uplifting anthems. Elsewhere, the hooks take longer to rise to the surface, but once the barbs snag they won’t let go, ensnaring us with the buoyant “Basra Bound,” the stomping “Kick It Hard” and the chugging harmony-coated “Big Bluff Love.” The more experimental and atmospheric side of the Antietam lexicon isn’t completely jettisoned though; with the churning layered “Lucky Day” and the sublime vocal-free post-punk jam “Clarion” reminding us that the trio’s more nuanced interplay remains intact.
Ultimately, the rough-edged production and the mix-buried vocals prevent Tenth Life from being quite the straight-ahead rock set that it tentatively aspires to be. But if straightforwardness had ever really been Antietam’s defining characteristic, the forever-evolving ensemble would have burnt out several reincarnations ago. Instead, Tenth Life is another solid, memorable and crucial piece in a jigsaw-like canon that refuses to be finished without an age-defying fight.
Listen to Antietam’s “Numbered Days” (from Tenth Life) at Soundcloud.