K Records has always seemed to be blessed with an aura of uncomplicated authenticity. Founded in 1982 by Olympia, Washington’s most quixotic cultural ambassador Calvin Johnson, the label helped lead indie rock to its heyday in the mid to late 90s. Everything about the fiercely independent label — right down to the logo, which was slapdash twee before slapdash twee was A Thing — smacked of DIY wholesomeness that was both unpretentious and endearing. So it’s not surprising that The Halo Benders, one of Johnson’s many pet projects on the label, is responsible for one of the era’s most easily likable albums, 1996’s Don’t Tell Me Now.
A collaborative effort between Johnson and Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch (who’s career was about to hit its pinnacle with Perfect From Now On), the band embodied all the best parts of K Records — and Don’t Tell Me Now pushed all those parts to the fore. The label’s DIY touch underlies much of the the album’s charm. While today lo-fi is nearly always shorthand for “stylized tape fuzz and heavy-handed use of analog sounds,” the lo-fi of this record is understated in a way that has become rare. The songs sound loose and playful; the no-frills recording and production make it seem like you’re listening in on a low-key rehearsal. Tracks like “Halo Bender” and “Planned Obsolescence” shamble along with herky-jerky guitar and languid percussion. Much of the record shares this unguarded breeziness, a slack outlook that seems completely genuine.
Another real appeal comes from the band’s bizarre approach to songwriting — Don’t Tell Me Now is loose and playful by design. After sketching out a song’s structure, Johnson and Martsch would part ways and write lyrics and melodies separately, and rather than pick one, they would use both simultaneously. With Johnson intoning away in his distinctive baritone and Martsch’s adenoidal emoting, each song became a fractured duet with looks that overlapped and clashed. The discrepancy in voices lets you hear each vocal line independently; it also makes the whole operation sound like some deranged back-woods family band led by a retired codger and his teenage son. And if that sounds like an cheap jab, it isn’t. I imagine that’s just the slightly askew outsider sound the two were hoping for.
The trick is particularly effective on songs like “Bombshelter, Pt. 2,” where Johnson drones on about an elaborate plan to muck up the government like a sonorous Ted Kaczynski while his rant is punctuated by Martsch’s earnest crooning. It is simultaneously coolly detached and subtly catchy. Even when both vocalists play up the twee affectations that marked much of K Record’s early releases — on songs like “Flying Carpet” — the approach still completely works.
Overall, the Halo Bender’s reluctance to tighten up their playing and stick to one melody is the record’s major coup. Along with groups like Pavement and early Modest Mouse, the group really perfected transforming loose playing and relaxed energy into effective songwriting, an art that seems rarer and rarer. The current patch of guitar bands basking in the critical limelight — your TV on the Radios, Sleigh Bells, and even your Real Estates — have focus and drive to their songs that gives them a direct immediacy. And that’s great; but sometimes you just want to hear the excitement of a tune that sounds as if it’s held together by chicken wire.