The chemistry of a band is a delicate thing. When the right elements are combined, there’s no telling whether it will create a nice slow smolder that will sustain a steady heat for decades or provide one healthy burst of flame before going cold. When speaking of Come, the Boston band who kept the spirit of jagged, ragged indie guitar-rock aloft in the ‘90s, it’s almost a shame to put it into the latter category.
The group’s final two albums—1996’s Near-Life Experience and Gently, Down The Stream from 1998—were absolutely fine. But once you’d had a taste of Come’s “classic line-up” (vocalist/guitarist Thalia Zedek, guitarist Chris Brokaw, bassist Sean O’Brien and drummer Arthur Johnson), which produced three incredible full-lengths together, nothing else would do.
It extends beyond simply what the four could produce in the studio. When you dial up this 20th anniversary reissue of Come’s first LP, 11:11, head straight for the second disc, a 1992 recording of the band playing as part of Sub Pop’s Vermonstress Festival in Burlington, Vt. The songs may not have the same punch as their studio counterparts, but there’s that feeling of abandon stuffed deep into the core of the band’s live attack. Zedek and Brokaw strangle some unholy fury from their guitars, while their rhythm section sound like it is taking everything they have not to turn these midtempo scorchers into nitro-fueled punk.
Like that live set, the actual album is the perfect document of a band in complete control. Just how much in control? So much so that 11:11 took almost exactly a week to record and mix. Of course we can give much of that credit to the fact that Come had at least two years to beat these songs into near-perfect shape on stage and in rehearsal. But the nine songs that they recorded in the summer of 1992 hardly sound rote. The quick spun tempo changes of “William” feel as if they just stumbled upon it two minutes before hitting record on the tape machine; the rising and cresting waves of guitar noise and incident on “Orbit” are terrifying and inviting.
Nothing about this album really screams of the period of time in which it was created, but Zedek gives it away in her lyrical focus. By the time she had joined up with her Come bandmates, she’d already bore witness to how heroin was ravaging the underground rock community, and had even gotten hooked herself during her days as the vocalist for Live Skull. The echoes of that time resonate through these songs, her weathered voice describing the depths of withdrawal and on the pointedly titled “Brand New Vein,” a rueful look at her uncertain post-junk future.
From this one initial blast, Come made two follow-ups that were worthy successors—the fuller, bluesier Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and backing up former Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn’s gloriously burnished pop on his 1995 solo effort Melting In The Dark. Soon thereafter, O’Brien and Johnson left the group. And for as much as the band relied on the snaky dust storms that Zedek and Brokaw created with guitars, not having as solid a foundation to build off of, the results never conjured up the same voodoo.
Whether the original lineup’s upcoming reunion shows will have a similar devastating force as they once exhibited two decades ago remains to be seen, but if they let us down, we’ll always have these embers to warm our weary bones.