Various VariousMatador At 21
Las Vegas. Cement, pyramids, and neon. A three-day festival. A box. Six albums. A lovely (and emotive) 85-page booklet that looks like a high-school yearbook. Thirty-six poker chips. This is how Matador, the label that made Pavement, Teenage Fanclub, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo and a ton of other bands what they are today—a handful of classics—celebrated its twenty-first birthday (the legal drinking age in the United States). With a limited edition (of the aforementioned box of six albums) that’s an overview of the best moments of a catalogue reflecting two decades, the one that ended in the heat of grunge (and ushered in the explosion of indie-rock), and the start of a new century, the 21st, marked by the atomisation of sounds, the definitive imposing of the sub-label (genres have grown and multiplied, again and again), as well as the end of the music macro-industry (thanks, Mr. Napster). And since summarising all of this in five albums (plus an unreleased concert album) isn’t at all easy, “Matador at 21” can be considered a real feat.
It starts off with a first album subtitled “The Pre-Dawn”, the hard beginnings, a band in a garage, the rawness of the first adolescent noise pop, the first drink, the first indiscretion. The debut of Teenage Fanclub is brilliant (and “Everything Flows” works as the starting gun for the label’s first three complicated years, from 1989 to 1992), as well as that of Superchunk (they weren’t the Buzzcocks, but they were very close: “Slack Motherfucker”) and Pavement (Mr. Rock is here, and he isn’t the same as he ever was: “Perfume-V”). The first attempts of H.P. Zinker are rescued from oblivion ( “Dancing Days”), along with Unsane ( “This Town”), and the Dustdevils ( “Throw the Bottlefull”). It’s all too short. It’s all too crude. The sun has yet to come out. And when the sun comes out, the days taste like milk and honey. Hence the subtitle of the second album, “The Years of Milk and Honey” (1993-1995). While grunge is self-destructing, underground pop (which wouldn’t switch Bowie for Neil Young), allergic to desperate lumberjacks, explodes, and then what happens? Pavement gets domesticated (in its own way, of course, they still have a long way to go, but they already put out songs like “Silence Kit”), and Pizzicato Five burst on the scene (oh, yes, with such delicious cuts as “Baby Love Child”), Liz Phair distances herself from the other she-warriors (with “Mesmerizing” and much more), and Yo La Tengo opens the way for purer indie ( “Big Day Coming”). Matador is starting to grow up. It’s barely babbling, but already everybody likes what it has to say.
In this sense, the third album ( “Days of Whiskey and Tears”) reveals the lament (perfectly embodied by Chan Marshall, the sad girl who invented Cat Power, standing out with the still-Martian “American Flag”) and youthful arrogance (disguised in the hymn called “We Rule the School” put out by Belle & Sebastian), but also the twisted, wonderful universe of Mogwai (and they have chosen the dazzling “Helps Both Ways” to exemplify the change of course that the decade has taken). The 21st century takes off with the fourth album ( “Don’t Call it a Comeback”, with songs that were recorded and released between 2002 and 2007), and it does so with a progressive abandoning of arms (the guitar and shot of electricity that the label took off with are history by now), and an ode to the (twisted) sound atmosphere called “Hands Away” by Interpol. These are years of uncertainty. Of new paths. New crossings. There are The New Pornographers and it seems like the sun is shining again ( “From Blown Speakers”), but it’s only a mirage (Cat Power counterattacks with a deeply sad right hook: “He War”)—or is it? Noise is also back (have a listen to Pretty Girls Make Graves and you’ll see why) but in a different way. Another group that isn’t the same is Pavement, among other things because they don’t exist anymore. Now what exists (in terms of albums) is Stephen Malkmus (its ex-leader) and he looks more like a model than anything else. The times are changing, and Matador is too.
It’s enough to listen to the fifth and last album (chronologically speaking— the gift album was really recorded in 1999, during the label’s tenth anniversary celebration) to find out. New and outstanding names have been added ( Girls, Delorean, the classic Sonic Youth), and some of their stars are still active (Cat Power, Malkmus, Yo La Tengo, Interpol), but the spirit is still intact. The poker chips are a clue in this sense. The folks from Matador are telling us: “Hey, whether you like it or not, this is what we are. These are the bets we have made. And it is all that we have.” At times, to explain the whole, it’s enough to take one part. In this sense, the value of Matador’s box is incalculable. It not only contains a summary of 21 years of work, but also 21 years of history (of music). Extremely sensitive material, in this case.