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Cutout Classics

 

By John Brodeur

I guess it’s about time. The cycle of pop-culture nostalgia seems to run roughly seven or eight years behind the decade it’s fetishizing—you might recall that 1998 was the year of Orgy’s “Blue Monday,” and a surplus of ’80s package tours crowding the sheds. (That Culture Club-Human League-Howard Jones bill must have been one to remember.)

Now, with the ’90s nostalgia wagon charging ahead at full steam, the bands of not-so-yesteryear are taking to the road at a record pace. Everyone from the Smashing Pumpkins to Portishead have gotten back into the business, and the inevitable trickle-down effect has now influenced such one-hit wonders as Superdrag (good), the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (meh) and Deep Blue Something (dear God, no) to put in for vacation time from the hardware store, take the van off blocks and head out for another round of shows.

Herein lies the problem: The wrong bands are representing a decade that was much better, music-wise, than it seemed (despite the seeming omnipresence of Everclear between 1995 and 2000). Where’s Elastica when we need them? Or Sugar? I could do with Lotion, Failure, Rocket From the Crypt, Shudder to Think, Jawbox or -breaker . . . just about anyone signed to DGC between 1994 and 1997. It makes me pine for the should-have-beens, for all the hours spent rooting through cutout bins at Rhino Records and the Music Shack, and for a few lost bands and albums that could have been big. Bigger than Filter, even.

Social Kill, the 1994 full-length from California band the Ex-Idols, is one of the most visceral releases of its time. Released at roughly the same time as Green Day’s Dookie and the Offspring’s Smash, Social Kill could (and should) have capitalized on the pop-punk revival of 1994—had it only been a little more pop and a little less punk. But that’s what gives the Ex-Idols their edge: These songs are dark, desperate, dirty and debauched, coupling the manufactured danger of Sunset Strip bands like Mötley Crüe with the very real danger of nascent (circa-’70) Iggy and the Stooges. Gary Finneran’s voice rattles like an empty gasoline can—something like a young Iggy Pop, actually—as he fires off curse-filled self-hate anthems one after another (sample lyric: “Everybody’s laughing/Everybody dies/Being alive is suicide”), his every word a dagger for the eardrum. The band matches Finneran’s intensity, bringing in the 14-track album at a ferocious 36 minutes. The band were dropped before they were able to cut a second album and quickly split; a brief 1998 reunion drew little fanfare, but quite fortunately, latecomers can download the band’s entire catalog (two albums and an EP) at Ex-Idols.com.

The Grays could have been contenders, had 1994 been the year of smartly composed pop-rock. (See above.) They had a pedigree to die for, although it was still being built at the time: Drummer Dan McCarroll and guitarist Buddy Judge worked with Aimee Mann on her first solo release; Jason Falkner, who had recently left retro-pop act Jellyfish, went on to release a few drastically underheard solo releases; Jon Brion later scored several Hollywood films, made a record of his own (1999’s label-spurned Meaningless), and produced albums for just about everyone. Much like their spiritual forebears Badfinger (although not nearly as ill-fated), the band sported three strong singer-songwriters in Brion, Falkner and Judge. That democracy, not to mention the seemingly bottomless multi-instrumental talents of Falkner and Brion, make Ro Sham Bo, the band’s one and only release, a fully satisfying hour of baroque power pop. The group’s only brush with mainstream success came when the video for the Falkner-penned single “Very Best Years” was panned by Beavis and Butthead, and copies of the long-out-of-print Ro Sham Bo are increasingly hard to come by.

I never really expected that the Interpreters would make a break for the big time, as the mod-fired power-pop that the youthful Philly-based trio served up on 1997’s Back in the U.S.S.A. was flatly incongruous with its time. (Again: Everclear. What were we thinking?) Released by Warner imprint Freeworld after being batted around by several labels, U.S.S.A. is an absolute blast. The drums surge forth in Keith Moon-like spasms, the guitar and bass unite in righteous one-note riffery, and Herschel Gael’s vocals are masterfully snotty. The album has more whoa-oh-ohs and hey-heys than I can count. All but three of the album’s 16 tracks come in under three minutes in length; five of them don’t even break the two-minute mark. It’s a shitload of fun; it just came at a time when people weren’t interested in their music being fun. The band continued as the Interpreters USSA for a few years (including a performance at the 2000 Republican National Convention!?!) before calling it quits; their sound later thrived in the hands of the Hives.

Speaking of bad timing, the Unband rocked hard when hard rock wasn’t cool. A few years later and the Unband might have latched onto the garage revival, but in the year 2000, the public couldn’t get enough of that shitty nü-metal. Retarder is not that. It is shitty, but in the best possible way—it should go without saying that the album lives up to its name. Besides having one of the greatest titles in the history of titles, Retarder is an all-out bar-brawl of an album, one of the best big-dumb-rock records I’ve ever heard. The song titles do all the work, really: “(You Make Me) Rock Hard,” “(Sure Do Feel Like a) Piece of Shit,” “Crack Soundtrack,” “Everybody Wants You,” “Cocaine Whore,” “$#@?!!” (Yes, that was a Billy Squier cover back there.) Though a few of their tracks were featured in the film Super Troopers, a 2000 tour opening for Def Leppard was probably the band’s closest brush with fame, and it inspired bassist Michael Ruffino to pen one of the most laugh-out-loud tour diaries I’ve ever read. Copies of Retarder are typically easy to find on the Internet, and you should own it. Ruffino later stretched his writings into a book, and that’s supposedly being turned into a film. Be afraid.

 

 

 

 

 


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