Thursday, April 17, 2008

I don't like that message. It's too scary.

Playing right now: "One Less Bell To Answer"

(Maybe he wouldn't've left if she served something other than fried eggs once in a while.

Him: Hey, baby, what'd you make for us?

Her: Fried eggs.

Him: Again?! Dammit, woman, I'm outta here.)



Something at work triggered the memory of Christmas' 1989 album Ultraprophets of the Psykick Revolution so I got it out the other night. I was reminded of how brilliant this album is and how great and unsung a band Christmas was. I don't know if they meant for this to be a concept album, but it holds together like one, expressing all the horrible things that were festering as the '80s drew to a close (the threat of nuclear annihilation; AIDS; the fact that the world should be blown up because everyone is so awful; and the need to put on a smiley face and act like everything is fine). Rather than handling it all Dischord-style, Michael Cudahy (guitar), his brother Nicholas (bass) and Liz Cox (drums) proved that they were top-shelf practitioners of post-punk pop with a stinging lyrical approach whose closest touchstone was probably their neighbor Peter Prescott of the Volcano Suns. (He had been in Mission of Burma, but his writing really blossomed with the Suns.)

Michael and Liz handled lead singing duties and acted as great foils for one another: Liz singing in a sweet soprano - maybe mezzo-soprano - as the straight member of the band, with Michael going back and forth from the equally straight one to the off-the-wall zany one.

Musically, they could go from chunky, college radio pop ("Stupid Kids") to heavy riffs that sounded like a twist on Led Zeppelin's "Custard Pie" ("Punch and Judy") to drop-tuned even-heavier riffage ("Royal Klutch Tattoo"). Sometimes they fire on all cylinders, acting bold enough to write a song called "Richard Nixon" that discusses the shamed ex-prez in a talk-speak rant that I'm sure many college music directors called "quirky" in 1989, and they segue the verse into a chorus of Liz chirping "Richard Nixon sees you/ Richard Nixon sees through you," with some ooh-la-la backing vocals behind it. It might sound ridiculous in print, and it is ---- but it works.

"Human Chain" tackles the issue of AIDS, but only in an off-hand way. Over a programmed cowbell and drumbeat, Michael bangs out another meaty riff (see - you can take your classic rock roots and use them for good) while the band sings cryptic lyrics like, "Lovers say that love is strange/ Sleep with me your life will change." After about a minute, the distorted guitar changes to a sweet acoustic that cues some even sweeter backing vocals. The lyrics here include "Here's a token of my infection/ pass it on to your connection." The contrast between sweet and dark is what makes this one hit hard, which gets driven home in the coda when the harmonies are muddied by screaming in the back of the mix. And the song gets cut off abruptly, mid-phrase.

Michael told me in an interview years after this came out that "Warhog" was about something to the effect that we should all die in a war because humankind isn't smart enough anyway. I forget exactlywhat it was he said and for 18 years, I can't make out most of the lyrics to the song. Michael, if you're reading this, a lyric sheet would be appreciated. Perhaps knowing what they had just said, the group ends the song with a friend's phone message excerpt: "I don't like that message, it's too scary." Before things get to that point, they've won me over with the harmonies and the guitar work.

Most of the lyrical fodder seems to have been birthed from the rise of the Republican regime, but it kind of serves as snapshot of where we are now as well. Maybe that's also what I'm reacting to now, the relevancy. When the album came out, I remember seeing a review in Rolling Stone that gave it one-and-a-half stars, which proves how out of touch mainstream music media still was at that time. It's not like these guys were Pere Ubu. In fact, there's probably a closer link with Christmas and REM, other than the fact that they were on the same label. The entry in allmusic.com says the album was misunderstood and that some reviews were "downright hostile." I guess the band was right.

"Hymn" ends the album with a sombre string trio alternating with a wobbly farfisa. (Another brilliant musical idea.) The first line of the song, sung by our heroes in a dark drone is "As sure as eggs is eggs/ life is good." They can't be serious. Right?

Right now, "Royal Klutch Tattoo" is playing in my ears and it's one of the fattest, most bad-ass riffs ever. I've always wanted to cover it. Though "My Operator" which follows is equally as good a cover. But I can't decipher those lyrics.

I should write one of those 33 1/3 books about this album.

Buy this record. Now. Or make me dub it for you.

Post-script: Michael, Liz and Nicholas escaped their misanthropic ways and went on to form Combustible Edison, the authentic and always happening lounge band, in the mid-'90s.

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