Agony Shorthand

Monday, November 03, 2003
JUKEBOX JURY, ROUND FOUR…..This is the fourth and final round of Agony Shorthand’s JUKE BOX JURY! It’s time once again to face down the demons of our past and bring those now-dated bands and performers that marked my (and perhaps your) college-era experience (1985-89) to their final day of reckoning. Did they really have any relevance beyond the boozing, record collecting 19-year-old demographic? Can we honestly bring ourselves to listen to their once-unchallenged music in late 2003 with nary a wince? If you missed the first installment, in which we took it to KILLDOZER, LAUGHING HYENAS, THE FLUID, PUSSY GALORE, and SCRATCH ACID, you can find it by clicking here. In our second installment, we rendered swift military-style justice to the LAZY COWGIRLS, DINOSAUR JR., NAKED RAYGUN, SPACEMEN 3 and SOUL ASYLUM, and you can find that one here. In the third installment, from which I’m doing a wholesale rip-off of my own introduction, we brought the hammer down on the BUTTHOLE SURFERS, DEATH OF SAMANTHA, DRUNKS WITH GUNS, HALO OF FLIES and DIE KRUEZEN. That’s collecting dust right here.

As before, the ground rules are as follows:

"Just as in our criminal justice system, these musicians will be judged either INNOCENT or GUILTY. If Innocent, they have successfully stood the ravages and judgment of time, and their music still sounds good to this day – not a small matter when the original jury was 18-19 years old. If they’re deemed Guilty, these bands are already being judged harshly by history, and will likely be wholly forgotten when the college students who bought their records in the 80s slowly begin to die off".

Let’s do this, all right?

1. BIG BLACK – I’m just going to say right out of the gate that my relatively recent listens to BIG BLACK show a band that did not age well. In the late 1980s these cats were the true heavyweights of the attacking, rabid noise-punk stable, most of whom eventually found their home on Touch & Go Records. Steve Albini's smarmy, informed, ultra-opinionated scene god persona looked pretty cool to this (and other) 19-year-old(s), and his band’s harsh beatbox assault & sheets of razorwire guitar noise were considered pretty goddamn awesome in their time. When they toured the west coast on their “farewell tour”, I futzed and fumbled for weeks when they chose not to play Los Angeles, and logistical challenges kept me from making the six-hour drive to the San Francisco show. Today the band’s over-reliance on taboo subject matter looks a bit limp, and there’s a certain sameyness song-to-song – and some very thin production -- that keeps any one of their records from being a masterpiece (though many consider “Atomizer”definitely their best – a lifetime achievement, and will doubtlessly tell us all so). Still, I think it’s fair to say that their clanging, industrio-punk sound was way ahead of its time, and has only been given to imitators since. It may lean a bit to the juvenile side, but as long as I’m a wee young at heart, BIG BLACK = INNOCENT!

2. COSMIC PSYCHOS – There was a brief, crazed period around 1987-88 where anything Australian and garagy and imported was just the bee’s knees. Lubricated Goat, Celibate Rifles, Hard-Ons, feedtime, King Snake Roost, Seminal Rats, Psychotic Turnbuckles, “Waste Sausage” – man, I had all those records, and I’ll bet you had a few as well. The best of ‘em all were the COSMIC PSYCHOS, especially the debut “Down On The Farm” EP and the eponymous LP. Full of fuzz, pissed-off attitude, and drunken down-underisms, the Cosmic Psychos were head and shoulders the kings of the Big Muff scene. Loutish? Sure. Dare I say juvenile? Of course. Does it hold up today? It absolutely does. Still first rate, snarling, kick-ass feedback & fuzz. COSMIC PSYCHOS = INNOCENT!

3. DAS DAMEN – I once read an interview with these guys during the Sub Pop/grunge heyday in which they wailingly bemoaned their lack of relative popularity, actually whining that they “had long hair first” and thus deserved a bigger piece of the action. Yes, DAS DAMEN were indeed the first rock band to ever play with long hair, which really added a lot of heft to their sound. I’ll bet you think I’m going to really take it to these guys, hunh? I certainly wouldn’t be the first, but fact is, I dug them then and I still sort of dig them now. Their first two records never really amounted to much in their entirety, but there were some really great heavy, swirling, pseudo-psychedelic, Marshall stack-pumping rock and roll killers on them – most notably “Tsavo” from the first record and “Trap Door” from the second. These tracks really got the party started when I cranked the “Now That’s What I Call Indie Rock, Volume 1” CD-R at a recent soiree. Their 3rd LP “Triskaidekaphobe” was actually solid all the way through, and I’d be a strong proponent of putting it out on CD. The Das Damen revival may be only weeks away, folks, mark my words. Hey, someone find the hanging judge – this guy’s way too lenient! DAS DAMEN = INNOCENT!

4. SQUIRREL BAIT – Yes, I really was 18 years old once, and that’s when the young lads in SQUIRREL BAIT, all around the same age, came along. They cranked out a melodic, amped-up sub-HUSKER DU / SOUL ASYLUM-style indie rock that garnered a heap of praise, devotion and fawning for about 10 months – mostly from other university children. Their two Homestead records were clogging the used bins by 1990, and anyone who mentioned Squirrel Bait in polite company usually did so by mumbling and covering their mouths with their jacket collars. What the hell were we thinking? Has anyone even listened to this band in 13 years? SQUIRREL BAIT = GUILTY!

5. URGE OVERKILL – I don’t think it’s fair to pile on these guys on the basis of their post-1989 oevre, which is abysmal sell-out material with a “kooky” edge – let’s instead turn our attention to “Jesus Urge Superstar”, which I used to run around calling “The Best Record of 1988” to anyone who would listen. I dug it out of the crates the other evening, put on my Breaking Circus t-shirt & Members Only jacket and let ‘er rip. I can’t say that it blew me clean away again – but it certainly wasn’t an unpleasurable experience. These Chicago cornballs were still in the midst of figuring out their path – were they to be dense, moody noise merchants a la their debut “Strange, I…” EP, or clownish rock and roll rogues a la the 1989 “Americruiser” EP? Right in the middle, and playing both ends, was this one great record, and it totally caught me flat-footed. I loved loved loved “Head On”, “Crown of Thorns”, “Last Train to Heaven”, “God Flintstone” and especially “The Polaroid Doll”, and played the hell out of them on my weekly college radio show. I figure that no matter how lame these guys ended up, Nash Kato and whatever the other guy’s name was – The Big Kahuna or something – were talented songwriters who probably could have channeled said talents to make more terrific records like this one. They just chose not to. But I can’t throw them in the dock for it. A shocked gasp rises from the courtroom : URGE OVERKILL = INNOCENT!

Thanks very much for indulging me on this JBJ stuff the past several months. We’ll do it again in 15 years with the Hunches, A-Frames, Lightning Bolt, A Feast of Snakes and Numbers!