One of the more underrated bands on the early-'90s indie rock scene, Antietam is the South's answer to Yo La Tengo, injecting the studied urban coolness of the Hoboken trio with some fiery Southern rock brio, especially in frontwoman Tara Key's impressive guitar work, which at times suggests a post-punk Lynyrd Skynyrd making nice with Neil Young after that whole "Sweet Home Alabama" thing. Like Yo La Tengo, however, this trio did their growing up in public. Key and her bass-playing boyfriend Tim Harris began the 1980s in their native Louisville, KY, as one-half of the Pylon-like post-punkers the Babylon Dance Band. Although extremely locally popular and able to tour throughout the Midwest and eastern seaboard, the foursome only managed to release one single, 1981's "When I'm Home," before splitting in 1983. The following year, Key and Harris formed the less antic quartet Antietam with second bassist Wolf Knapp and drummer Michael Weinert. With Key taking over vocals as well as lead guitar, Antietam had a vaguely folk-rock air in their earliest incarnation, akin to Chronic Town-era R.E.M. or Like This-era dB's. The band's self-titled 1985 debut, with Harris and Knapp playing twin basses under Key's angular, Roger Miller-style (Mission of Burma, not "King of the Road") guitar, is an odd but accessible piece of mid-'80s indie rock. Weinert, clearly the band's weakest player based on the first album, was replaced by the far more competent Sean Mulhall (the duo's former Babylon Dance Band compadre) in time for the much-improved follow-up, 1986's Music From Elba. Although the R.E.M. comparison no longer holds up, there's a moody, near-psychedelic feel to this quietly intense album that shows a definite similarity between Antietam and the mid-'80s Hoboken bands such as the Feelies and the Individuals. Perhaps sensing this musical kinship, Key and Harris left Louisville in the late '80s to settle in New York. Antietam took a couple of years to settle in their new environment, making the friendship of Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley in the interim. Yo La Tengo covered Antietam's burning "Orange Song" on their 1989 album President Yo La Tengo, and Kaplan and Hubley produced Antietam's third album, 1990s Burgoo. Although again somewhat hampered by another less-than-stellar drummer, Charles Schultz, Antietam made the transition from quartet to trio (Knapp had stayed in Louisville to return to college) with surprising grace. Key offset the loss of the interesting sonic patterns created by Harris and Knapp's double basses by focusing more on overtones and feedback, and the noisier sound fits the more aggressive songs perfectly. After the closet-cleaning release of a second Babylon Dance Band single, "Someday," in late 1990, Key and Harris hooked up with a steady drummer at last; with Josh Madell on board, Antietam finally had a stable lineup with three similarly gifted players. The improvement on 1991's Everywhere Outside is immediately obvious; Key's guitar playing in particular is outstanding, continuing the aggression of Burgoo while adding more finesse. An absolutely smoking live set recorded at CBGB in July of that year was released as Antietam Comes Alive! in 1992; a selection of songs from the two most recent albums plus two new songs and a rave-up cover of Patti Smith's "Ask the Angels" with guest rhythm guitar by Chris O'Rourke of Sleepyhead, Antietam Comes Alive! is one of the band's better efforts. After that triumph, Key and Harris unexpectedly joined up with Mulhall and singer Chip Nold to temporarily reform the Babylon Dance Band and belatedly release their debut album, 1994's Four on One. Including both tracks from the 1990 single along with new songs recorded by New York noisemaster Wharton Tiers, Four Into One has the feel of old friends horsing around in the studio, down to a sloppy Shadows of Knight cover. Quickly regrouping with Madell, Antietam recorded possibly their best album, 1994's Rope-a-Dope. Continuing to develop the musical strengths of the previous two albums, Antietam opened up their sound on this album, creating a more dynamic and varied sound. For the first time, Harris and Madell share in the lead vocals, singing two songs apiece.
During Antietam's 1993 break, Key recorded her first solo album, the Harris-produced Bourbon County, in a pair of sessions, each featuring entirely different players from the other. When the album was released in 1995, it was well enough received that the next year's more focused follow-up, Ear and Echo, was also released as a Tara Key solo album although the band consists of Key, Harris, Madell, and, interestingly, former Antietam second bassist Wolf Knapp. A single, "Alibi," was released under the Antietam name in 1996, but the name was retired after that. Key collaborated with Eleventh Dream Day's Rick Rizzo on 2000's Dark Edson Tiger, with contributions from Harris, Janet Beveridge Bean of Eleventh Dream Day, and Sue Garner of Run On. Separately, Harris played cello on select tracks for Yo La Tengo's An Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000) and Summer Sun (2003). He also had a brief stint recording and touring with The Special Pillow. Madell added drums to the first two Retsin albums, Salt Lick (1995) and Egg Fusion (1996). Harris and Key joined Tara Jane O'Neil for The Naysayer's debut, 2000's Deathwhisker. As The Special Pillow prepared to release their self-titled debut in 2004, Antietam had already regrouped for what would be their first album in ten years. With O'Neil joining them at the production board, Victory Park was released in April on Carrot Top. The double-disc Opus Mixtum arrived in early 2008. By contrast, 2011's Tenth Life was one of the band's poppiest efforts. ~ Stewart Mason