First Listen: Bedhead, '1992-1998'
Boring can be beautiful, and Bedhead proved it. The band walked the walk — or sleepwalked it, as the case may be — throughout its existence in the '90s. While groups like Nirvana, the Pixies and Weezer had mastered the art of the quiet-loud dynamic in their songs, Bedhead mostly kept quiet. Songs shuffled, drifted and poked along. At a time when even the humblest bands were hitting the big time, Bedhead's subdued music floated under the radar. Its sweetness and melody were magnetic, but that introversion and listlessness kept audiences at a polite distance. "I can't force myself to say something / More than I can think of a thing to do / Any more than you can pull yourself out of nothing / When there is nothing forcing you to," goes "Extramundane," a track on the band's third and final full-length, Transaction de Novo. If that seems way too on-the-nose, remember that the band called itself Bedhead — and that the '90s, by contrast, were a decade of peak irony for indie rock. The band's too-snoozy-for-cool approach was, in its own hushed way, a radical manifesto.
Transaction de Novo is being reissued as part of 1992-1998, a four-disc box set that also includes the group's other two albums — 1994's WhatFunLifeWas and 1996's Beheaded — along with an odds-and-ends collection titled Singles / EPs / B-Sides. As a whole, the set reveals a band with far more dimension than it generally gets credit for. Formed in the Dallas area in 1991, Bedhead gathered around the singer-songwriter core of brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane; among that lineup was drummer Trini Martinez, nephew of singer and actor Trini Lopez, most famous for his 1963 version of "If I Had a Hammer." Other bands of the era could play slow, including Codeine and Low, but Bedhead hollowed out its own niche: Like a shoegaze band with most of the noise stripped away, the three-guitar group managed to sound somehow minimal. The lushness of the group's songs flowed from what wasn't there: excess, ego, theatrics. Years of refining that chiming simplicity resulted in some of the best indie-pop songs of the '90s, even if they came as whispery odes to the power of apathy and absence rather than quirky, clever confections.
WhatFunLifeWas is Bedhead's unsteady first step, but its charms remain solid. Sporting ragged guitar heroics on par with those of J. Mascis — only spread out in subtler eruptions between both Kadanes and third guitarist Tench Coxe — tracks like "Haywire" and "Living Well" are fully formed, softly distorted anthems. In particular, the guitar swells and meandering hooks of "Living Well" marked the new band as a force of nature. But it wasn't a forbidding force. Even though "Liferaft" climbs toward a sour, jangling climax, an odd peace sits at the heart of it — or if not peace, at least resignation. The seven minutes of "Powder" are propulsive, but it's a gentle kind of urgency; "To the Ground," on the other hand, feels almost hokey, complete with a galloping country-rock vibe. The Kadanes, small-town Texas boys, seem unable to muster an ounce of pretension between them, and so they shrug and simply turn the prosaic into the poetic. "Bedside Table" is not a title to inspire thrills, and the song isn't dramatic either. Its subject matter comprises, among other things, "reading about someone deciding to quit speaking." Accordingly, the vocals are kept under the breath, like confessions that don't want escape. The brief noise meltdown at song's end is a striking reminder of how much ache is being held in check. Bedhead was holding so much back, in fact, that each new release felt more like a murmured hint of a secret than any kind of statement.
Strangely enough, Bedhead caught on. The band began playing to larger crowds, and the acclaim for 1996's Beheaded flew in the face of conventional wisdom: that indie rock was defined by Pavement-esque quirk and snark. Beheaded rejected that perception, even as the album leapt forward from the relative crudeness of WhatFunLifeWas. Crisp, clean-lined and clinically melancholy, Beheaded brought an elegance that Bedhead had only hinted at before. From the sinewy chords of "The Rest of the Day" to the plainspoken despair of "Losing Memories," the album accomplishes two feats at the same time: It veers closer to traditional, even folky songwriting while whittling that sound into something so intimate it's practically skeletal. "Felo de Se" is the twangy companion of "To the Ground" from WhatFunLifeWas — it comes close to sounding like early Meat Puppets — and that flicker of warmth feels like an inferno in the coldness.
For Bedhead's third and final album, Transaction de Novo, Steve Albini — the leader of Shellac leader and famed sound engineer — was brought in to produce. Albini brought his usual angularity to the recording, but Bedhead had already edged in that direction; "More Than Ever," despite its title, is one of Bedhead's barest songs, a study in restraint where the group's three guitarists tangle and pull each other taut. "Parade" is one of Bedhead's many waltzes, and that sea-shanty sway grows eerie as the song gradually moves from stately procession to frantic stampede. The louder Bedhead gets, though, the more it accentuates the silence around it. "Forgetting" is Bedhead's final song about the unhappy implosion of memory, or the lack thereof: With lines like "The only thing that makes me look back is nostalgia," there's a frozen-in-place acceptance of the inevitable that infuses the song, and Transaction de Novo as a whole.
1992-1998 is rounded out by Singles / EPs / B-Sides, and it's an erratic but telling collection. The original versions of "Bedside Table and "Living Well," both from Bedhead's debut single from 1992, are more murky and lo-fi than the renditions that later showed up on WhatFunLifeWas, but they're also more scrappy and spirited. One of the group's greatest songs, "The Dark Ages" (from the 1996 EP of the same name), pours frustration and, once again, thwarted memory into deflated couplets such as "There's so much to say / I wish I had run away." Cover songs give a glimpse into the band's punk and post-punk background: The Stranglers' "Golden Brown" comes out sounding less baroque and more ethereal, and Joy Division's "Disorder" is heartbreakingly naked, just a year after Bedhead's slowcore comrades Low and Codeine paid similar tribute to "Transmission" and "Atmosphere," respectively, on the 1995 Joy Division tribute album A Means to an End. Bedhead may have seemed like a bunch of withdrawn young men making music in a vacuum, but they were part of something bigger and richer.
Bedhead broke up the year of Transaction de Novo's release, for the same reasons many less-than-famous bands do: The pressures of career, family, and maturity began to intrude on the band's momentum, which wasn't exactly meteoric in the first place.
The group was highly regarded and fairly popular during its existence, at least in indie terms, but it wasn't enough to translate into a sustainable career. The Kadanes later launched another band, The New Year, which picked up were Bedhead left off, although its releases are sporadic. The mystique, however, remains. Bedhead was a band that existed largely outside the alt-rock and indie trends of the '90s, and what may have sounded like sloth or boredom on the band's part was just a different way of calibrating its internal clock. Now as then, Bedhead's gorgeous, lulling songs ask you to slow down long enough to keep up with them.
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