It took a lot of prodding from the universe to get me to start listening to Antietam. I first heard them back in the days of tape swapping, when my music-mentor friend Pete put their album Rope-a-Dope on a cassette for me; I liked it fine as straight-ahead postpunky guitar rock, and noted the presence of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan as guest organist on the excellent opening song “Hands Down,” but was mostly distracted by the other side of the tape featuring Madder Rose’s Panic On, which became an instant favorite.
A few years later, I got word that Lianne Smith — a renowned New York singer-songwriter with an equally renowned aversion to issuing recorded music, who I’d gotten to know somewhat through the nascent-internet-era online message board ECHO — was playing a show with her even more seldom-chronicled country duo Shackwacky. Opening was an assortment of guitarists who sat in a circle on the stage at the Lower East Side club Tonic and, if I’m remembering right, improvised a set; among them were both Kaplan and Antietam’s Tara Key, who lived up to her deserved (if somewhat undeservedly backhanded) reputation as “New York’s best female guitarist” but didn’t make me immediately run out to buy any Antietam albums.
And so it went: I went to see Eleventh Dream Day, the indie-rock-famous Chicago band that featured Janet Bean of my beloved Freakwater as their drummer, and there was Antietam, almost stealing the show as the opening act. I finally got an opportunity to see Dump, YLT bassist James McNew’s solo project, along with fellow indie-rock legends The Scene Is Now (whose cockeyed classic “Yellow Sarong” Yo La Tengo had covered on their album Fakebook) and, hey lookit that, Antietam again.
(All the Yo La Tengo adjacency is not coincidental: That band’s first-ever gig was opening for Antietam, and Key had joined YLT on numerous occasions, most notably to fill out the three-piece’s impersonation of the four-piece Velvet Underground in the film I Shot Andy Warhol. I’ve frequently joked that most of my record collection can be divided into bands I discovered through the Mekons and bands I discovered through Yo La Tengo, and Antietam is the first planet in the Yo La Tengo orbit.)
By this time, something clicked: Seeing Antietam live, with the low-slung Key’s feet-planted guitar rave-ups bouncing off her gangly husband Tim Harris’s melodic bass lines and air-grabbing leaps and Josh Madell’s just-on-kilter-enough drumming, gave me a new appreciation for their music being more than just fun punky guitar rock, and drove me to make my first actual Antietam album purchase. Whereupon I discovered something unexpected.
Opus Mixtum, as its name suggests, is an extremely wide-ranging album. It opens with “Tambo Hope,” a quiet, almost meditative looping instrumental featuring acoustic guitar, tambourine, and cello — immediately followed by a squall of feedback, which then launches into “RPM,” an arena-rock anthem for a band with no designs on arenas. And there were other earworm gems to come: “Turn It On Me,” a conflicted love letter to Magellan, or at least a Magellan, from his lover (“When will you look at me/The way you look at the sea?”); and “Time Creeps,” a consideration of “all the babies in the bars and the subway cars” that deserves to be on an aging-punk split single with Superchunk‘s “My Gap Feels Weird.”
It only took 15 years, but I was finally hooked. Helped along by Antietam being a band that seldom tours but plays shows every few months in their adopted hometown of New York, and by the fact that once I got a chance to meet Tara and Tim they turned out to be the nicest, most down-to-earth people (let alone indie-rock legends) imaginable, I started becoming an Antietam regular. And not only did my appreciation for their music grow with each performance and each new album — one moment imprinted on my memory, from the now-defunct Brooklyn dive bar Hank’s Saloon, is of Tim and Tara playing back-to-back while Josh unleashed a fury of drumming by the back wall — but it turned out to be an education in 1990s-era indie rock: I never would have heard Sleepyhead, or Two Mule Team (featuring 75 Dollar Bill‘s Rick Brown and his wife Sue Garner, formerly of the duo Pot Liquor alongside Angel Dean, who had also been the other half of Lianne Smith’s Shackwacky), or Ruby Falls, or Escape By Ostrich or numerous other bands if they or their members hadn’t shared a bill with Antietam. I also never would have met my friend Jeff, who I finally introduced myself to after seeing him at innumerable Antietam (and Yo La Tengo) shows, and who as a film production worker had helped midwife the two bands’ appearance in I Shot Andy Warhol; with Antietam, it’s all connected.
I now try never to miss an Antietam show; I even helped record sound for their video chronicle of their release shows for their 2017 album, Intimations of Immortality, which features horns and fiddle and banjo and yet remains unmistakably Antietam. I’ve also read Tara’s mom June Key’s amazing autobiography Blue Streak (edited and shepherded to publication by Tara) about her life and unexpected emergence as a national school-integration advocate, and am currently trying to decide which of Tara’s photo postcards (fading Manhattan advertising murals, clouds over the New Jersey Turnpike, patterns of brick in Cartagena, Colombia) to put up in my apartment and which to send to my far-flung fellow residents of Antietam Nation.
And Madder Rose? I don’t listen to them much anymore. It’s funny the directions life takes you.