t’s hard to imagine that there was a time when it was cool to be in an indie-rock band and whisper. But there was, and that time was called 1997. Before the Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, and the Shins stressed the importance of yelping, of really putting yourself out there like that bag of feelings you know you can be so people have a space to empathize, Brian McMahan, best known for being in Slint, was a whisperer.
And the material on Promised Works (collected from 1995’s Fight Songs and ’96’s Marshmallows) is whispery music. By then, fellow Louisvillian Will Oldham (who, don’t forget, took the cover photo of Slint’s Spiderland) had already cut his first several singles as Palace—some of which McMahan played on. The Texan band Bedhead (whose same-era EPs are also being re-released by Touch and Go), were following a strain of narcotized, minimalistic hymns all the way to the hammock. Low were gaining ground, albeit, you know, in imperceptible increments. In the late ’90s, there was actually a band called Codeine.
But those other bands had roots in folk sounds—Oldham’s country gothic, Low’s ascetic harmonies, Bedhead’s transparent prettiness—while the For Carnation had a post-rock pedigree. Fight Songs found McMahan playing with former Slint members David Pajo and Britt Walford, who were then members in Tortoise; Doug McCombs and John Herndon from Tortoise joined in. Later, McMahan added his brother Michael and Brad Wood, who produced and played with just about everyone Steve Albini didn’t (Exile in Guyville, Tortoise, Sea and Cake, Royal Trux).
What does this really mean? Well, it means sometimes playing excruciatingly slow songs with jazz chords. It means “How I Beat the Devil,” an uncharacteristically peppy tangle of guitar harmonies, or the dissonant rustle of “Salo,” or “I Wear the Gold,” a taut, noodly instrumental with a simmering guitars and a half-broken beat that probably shows its Tortoise connection too well. It usually means an eerie sense of restraint rather than a sleepy sense of commitment. But then again, it usually means nothing. Even though the band did a lot of growing before recording 2000’s obtuse, drawn-out self-titled album, the best songs on the EPs—“Get and Stay Get March,” “Imyr, Marshmallow,” “Winter Lair”—trade in the same 19th-century notions of grandeur that Slint did, but with less noise and less catharsis.
Not that the For Carnation sounded crushingly revolutionary then (I remember the self-titled album coming out right as I was finishing high school), but it’s hard to overstate the jump McMahan made in the few years between Fight Songs and The For Carnation. Songs got longer, groovier, farther away from something like Slint-lite and closer to a new kind of genre. In an interview from late 2000, McMahan talked about how he was excited to keep working with people on the For Carnation as a project; since then, he’s reformed Slint, but basically retired the For Carnation name. Bedhead morphed into the New Year; Oldham refashioned himself as a million other perverts, and Low kept on plugging. The For Carnation were a footnote of a footnote in a genre that was always a little too nebulous to track; so quiet that when McMahan quit, nobody realized he was gone.