No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds of the North West Grunge Era – Track Listing and Commentary Part 2

Posted: August 22, 2014 in No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds of the North West Grunge Era

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Apologies for the delay – always something going on around here, always something…

So, recap! Disc 1 CD / Volume 1 LP =

  • Starfish – featuring former members of Olympia stalwarts Treehouse and Helltrout
  • Vampire Lezbos – long running punk outfit with a neat twist of humour and politics
  • Nubbin – it’s poppy, it’s fuzzy – it gets two songs for being so cool
  • Saucer – one of two Bellingham bands on the release, piano, neat twists in time signature
  • Machine – mix 1/4 Nirvana pre-Bleach, a perfect teenhood punk upbringing and tight playing to create a Machine
  • Medelicious – no shame in saying, my favourite song on the release, would have been a pop-punk hit 5 years later
  • Hitting Birth – industrial, tribal, somewhere between Coil and Public Image Limited circa Flowers of Romance
  • Crunchbird – poetic, snarling, calm before angry storm, sonorous deep vocals
  • The Ones – Americana meets garage rock before the former was even invented, lite-energy, friendly
  • Pod – an instrumental three piece creating punk rock mantras to spiral into
  • Thrillhammer – A welcome gift from Portland. Straight-down-the-line scorching alternative rock
  • Yellow Snow – A neat linkage between the alt. rock era to come and the electro-pop that went before
  • Helltrout – Olympia’s ‘other’ heavy rock band in the 1988-1991 era somewhere between grunge and metal

And Disc 2 CD / Volume 2 LP? Well, let us see, let us see…

First out of the gates, and celebrity of sorts, Bundle of Hiss. Kurt Danielson did a huge (and deeply kind) favour by fishing out an unreleased BoH song – Wench. Further favours were done by the omnipresent Mr. Jack Endino who felt there was no need to remix it, it just needed a quick mastering and polish which he was willing to do for free to see the song get out there. I guess it felt right – credit to Stuart Baker of Soul Jazz Records who selected the line-up for this release – that the songs that run closest to ‘grunge’ in either sound or involvement sit right at the centre, the dividing line between the two halves of the compilation (Helltrout closing out Disc 1, BoH kicking off Disc 2.) It’s a charmer too – dark love song? Quest? Clear precursor of the glory that was to follow with Tad? All of these – plus it’s good fun.

A Starfish reprise, a song called Run Around – again, I can’t help it, I loved the Breeders’ Cannonball back when I was 16-17 but had only passing delight in the accompanying album. I think Starfish are far more ‘together’ and extremely similar in sound and style. Second favourite song on the compilation for me – I admit to singing it around the house. The mellow opening is great, gentle, bass-heavy, neat vocal turn before the voice is double-tracked and thumps into the chorus. All sorts of great touches – the first chorus bleeding into the next verse, a kicking solo…And tight at two and a bit minutes.

Thrillhammer reprise – Bleed – ooo…Neat discomfort…Rip-roaring echo of grunge – perhaps a touch poppier…That “just like heaven” chorus refrain sticks in my mind…Then I notice the lines about “…something crawls between your legs and you begin to bleed…” and I suddenly think “wait! Must listen more closely! There’s something happening here…” I love it when songs get me singing along then warp into something different. Remember that song “Stop the Cavalry”? Heck, Christmas song sung by a man in a World War One trench wishing he was home with his family and not facing death in muddy fields…

Chemistry Set were a real web of connections – one of the big early bands in the region were the Young Pioneers which spawned people who later went on into bands like Swallow on Sub Pop, most guys in the band went onto other regulars on the scene and they all lived in band houses frequented by people like Bruce Pavitt and half the ‘soon to be famous’ denizens of Seattle. The song itself made me think of R.E.M. when I first heard it – the jangling guitar like keys in a pocket but I think there’s a lot more warmth, richness, psychedelic influences and a beautifully building outro with new elements arising and falling away to the last fade out.

My Name – intro to ‘Voice of a Generation Gap’ immediately made me think ‘Know Your Enemy’ by Rage Against the Machine – ha! Fun. My Name were a big presence on the North West punk scene, a really quality outfit. This first song by the band has the mellow sparky verses with their upbeat melodies, before the rocking bridge…Then the big chorus asking where the leader of the musical moment is or is going to come (“give me a Jesus of the present-day…”) Eerie in a way. Be careful what you wish for – there’s that further echo of “who will be king and queen of the outcast teens.” The chugging spoken word bridge is a great touch – a walk round a supermarket and life in general all at once, lyrically sophisticated. There’s so many twists and turns to this song – they’re a talented bunch.

The first disc had a neat crowd-pleasing piece (to my mind) in the form of Medelicious’ Beverly. Disc two marks the same stage with a swooning female vocal, breathy, night-time whisper vibes. I think the violin is a wonderful addition to the song – a much under-used instrument in the indie-canon which lends the same inspired emphasis as Nirvana’s addition of a cello to Dumb on the In Utero album. It’s a great instrumental backing – an upbeat chorus on a song that sounds like a goodbye. Makes me feel sleepy – I’d put this on repeat before heading to bed.

Shug are a huge new favourite – they kick-ass. My take on quite a few of the female punk bands of this era is that they utterly out-muscled the blokes again and again – there’s something far more raw about a female voice at screaming razor-edge while still under control. Maybe it’s the same as early Norwegian death metal – it’s the higher pitches that make for nails on blackboard sharpness – most male vocalists can only offer a more grounded and well-earthed growl, a rumble of thunder rather than a lightning flash. The vocals here are awesome – tweaks applied to the end of lines, crystal-clear mumbling on the verses, an awesome range of technique and style on display. Plus it’s a real rock n’ roll lifestyle track – “between the smoking and the drinking and the red hot sun it’s a wonder I haven’t lost my mind…”

Treehouse – again, another real favourite – Debbie Had a Dream. Fragile vocal intro, can’t tell if happy or sad – then the propulsion of the guitars and bass locked in tight for the verses. The chorus spirals beautifully, you’ll hear it, circular patterns diving on down. You could drive to this song – head down and eyes fixed on the road, pedal flat. Plus, hell, ain’t it fun…?

My Name pop up again with “Why I Fight” – for all the roughneck song titles I find the vocal turn actually quite hard rock, y’know what I mean? That call to arms, that emphasis on certain lines “I’m the man for you – and you know it!” It’s a love song moment couched in a manifesto style and a promise that it won’t be easy and that he won’t be perfect and you know it. At 2.45 the song breaks and flies in a solo section that seems to be from a different song but works so well I really don’t mind – y’know how Pantera “Walk” (the best grit-teeth running song ever) pulls that same trick of skill meaning you don’t mind cohesiveness being sacrificed?

Soylent Green are from Tacoma – again, another Nirvana link having accompanied the early iteration of Nirvana on two of the band’s first six gigs. Bruce Purkey, courtesy of his brother, was one of the first recipients of Cobain’s dubbed tapes of January 23, 1998 – Nirvana’s first studio session. It Smiles really had a purpose in my mind – the whole immortality of the North West scene sat not a million miles from DIY, home-recorded, friends playing with friends for the sheer hell of it – there had to be something on here that came directly from that ethos and environment. So here it is, a song recorded in a meat-packing factory in Tacoma by a band who would briefly inhabit the Community World Theater where the couple of dozen local punk kids would go to meet those who shared their tastes amid a sea of indifference. It’s a straight forward clattering punk song and a neat break in another direction. That’s all we really wanted to do on this compilation – bin the carefully packaged, carefully presented Sub Pop universe that substitutes for the true complexity of the local music scene, send ears out in numerous directions for better or worse.

Kill Sybil were one of the bands – alongside Hell Smells (in which Maria Mabra of Shug played) and Tad (in which Kurt Danielson of Bundle of Hiss played) to perform at the benefit for Mia Zapata in 1993. A horrendous incident which, in the tightly knit and very heavily intertwined world of the North West music scene saddened an awfully large percentage of musicians in the region – it’s warming in a way realising this was a musical world small enough that most people knew most other people and had or would play with them at some point. Again, it’s a component of this compilation – the desire to show the same names popping up in different places, to show how many bands from across a region would end up crossing paths. The band itself reminds me of My Blood Valentine, vocally, I can’t hear the words, it’s more about tones, held notes, drifting male and female voices breaking in and falling away – the accompaniment is more a mantra played at volume, a steady repetition like musical wallpaper eliminating background noise and distraction so you can more readily appreciate the shifting elements and the motion of the voice. It probably says something about my twisted eardrums that I think of this as an ambient song…

Calamity Jane…I’ve know this band’s name since I was about 14. They’re famous essentially for being shredded by the Argentine crowd in Buenos Aires on October 30, 1992 when supporting Nirvana. One album, a clutch of singles – all done. A crying shame because there’s something of the Bikini Kill in these guys – the alternate purrs and yelps of the voice, the pummeling instrumentation – the demands for female ownership over female bodies, the endless issue of women only receiving a voice if they conform, conform, conform. They made their point best by being victimised so horrendously on that one and only trip abroad.

Saucer! Hello Bellingham! Chicky Chicky Frown – simple, swift, chanting lyrics, female backing vocals call-and-response to the male vocalist. I love the way the woman’s “yeah,” is mimicked by the guitars pulling a string bend/neck bend to push the note lower to the exact same extent as her voice. It’s a clever touch on a pleasantly throwaway song.

Ending! Attica. I REALLY wanted to get these guys on here – I’m not kidding, I was trying for months. The breakthrough involved actually getting Aaron Burckhard (ex-Nirvana, now-Under Sin) on the phone – poor guy was so kind and patient with me harassing him – and giving me the details for a gentleman called Robb who has been carefully maintaining the band’s only studio recordings. Attica entered Reciprocal Recording just a few weeks after Nirvana concluded Bleach and hammered out an album with Jack Endino only to never release it. It’s my belief that this is the first time an Attica song has appeared on an official release. Makes me think of Motorhead (apologies for skipping the umlaut), makes me think of early Kill ‘Em All era Metallica – I would have hated the metal end of the North West to be blotted out of existence on a release trying to bring all it’s colours back to life… They’re raw, they’re wild, they don’t mind cutting a few finger pads shredding. Fast, death comes ripping… Tear it up.

So…Summary of Disc 2 / LP Volume 2:

  • Bundle of Hiss ‘Wench’
  • Starfish ‘Run Around’
  • Thrillhammer ‘Bleed’
  • Chemistry Set ‘Fields’
  • My Name ‘Voice of a Generation Gap’
  • Small Stars ‘It’s Getting Late’
  • Shug ‘AM FM’
  • Treehouse ‘Debbie Had a Dream’
  • My Name ‘Why I Fight’
  • Soylent Green ‘It Smiles’
  • Kill Sybil ‘Best’
  • Calamity Jane ‘Magdalena’
  • Saucer ‘Chicky Chicky Frown’
  • Attica ‘The System’

A simple hope that you’ll find something to enjoy and that it’ll help you appreciate the sounds swirling around Kurt Cobain and the Nirvana boys during their most productive years. Go see the Nirvana Live Guide and look at who was accompanying them in State of Washington over the years.

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