Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Coolest Band Ever Is Not Cool At All

The lead singer and guitarist takes the stage wearing a shapeless black smock with a high turtleneck collar that can hide the lower half of his head if he so chooses; the upper half of his head is dominated by an almost literal mop of tight, silver curls that brings The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob to mind. The stage lights play perfectly upon it, as the fan blowing from atop his Marshall amp keeps it dancing lightly, in contrast to the incredibly loud music he's playing. 

This is Buzz Osbourne, aka King Buzzo of the Melvins. His band's lineup has changed ceaselessly for the entirety of its 28-year career, as the Melvins have gone through bass players like Kleenex for their whole lifespan, but the band has been exactly what it is for all that time: Heavy. Loud. Slow. Fast. Kind Of Funny. Kind Of Scary. Experimental. Weird. They emerged, seemingly fully formed, from some kind of primordial ooze that they refuse to sink back into, they have not changed a thing about what they do, and they seem to be better, and doing better, than ever before: I caught them this week on the second of two sold-out shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.  

I first saw the Melvins having no idea who they were, unfamiliar with any of their albums, which at that time were being released by Atlantic Records. It was 1996 (maybe '97), I was living in San Francisco, and my good friend Matt dragged me out to a tiny club called the Covered Wagon, where he'd heard they were playing an unannounced show. Apparently some friends of theirs had a new band, and they agreed to open for this band (whose name I've long since forgotten) just to help drive attendance a little. 

I don't remember a lot of details about that set: it was short. The place was packed. And they turned me into a fan for life. One thing I do remember was telling people afterward, "The drummer is the whole show." Here I was referring to Dale Crover, the other constant in the Melvins' lineup. 

Crover grimaces through every show, lips barely moving as he sings along with every song into a headset mic, sweat-soaked hair in his face from the first note, playing in odd tempos and time signatures with an array of stops and starts and off-time fills that sound like he's continuously messing up and recovering. Except he's not -- every beat of every drum is meticulously composed, and the result is a virtuosic performance that, absent the other instruments, would seem like one long improvisation that doesn't repeat. 

Over the 15 years since that first show, I'd guess I've seen the Melvins something like 8 or 9 times, and they have never disappointed. But they took things to a whole new level in 2005, when they absorbed another band, amoeba-like, into their fold. 

Big Business is a duo consisting of a bassist (Jared Warren, playing super-distorted lead, making guitar unnecessary) and a drummer (Coady Willis, more than fluent in the same style of off-beat, weird-fill thuddery as Crover) and specializing in loud, slow, fast, odd-time sludge obviously influenced by the Melvins. Buzz and Dale apparently found themselves between bass players for the kajillionth time and rather than poaching Big Business' guy, they took on both guys, turning the Melvins into a four-piece, and had them open Melvins shows with a Big Business set. 

Let's just pause a moment and let that sink in. The Melvins absorbed another band whole, let them keep their separate identity, and even gave them an opening slot on their gigs. 

Besides being a super cool thing to do, raising Big Business' profile and probably letting them get paid twice on every gig, it was a smart move because it made the Melvins, already the best live hard rock act around, way more awesome than they were before. What do you do when you have the best drummer ever? Apparently, you find the second-best drummer ever and put him right next to him. Then you have all four dudes sing, taking the menacing, droney lyrics into a four-part harmony that's even scarier than what they had before.

The first album they all made together, (A) Senile Animal, is in my opinion the best record of their career, melding their signature style with excellent production and much stronger, tighter songwriting than they've had since their short, 3-album run on Atlantic during the Seattle gold rush of the early '90s. 

And let's go back to this two-drummer thing for a minute. We are not talking about some kind of lame Allman Brothers/Grateful Dead thing, where one guy plays the beat and the other guy plays cute fills here and there. Nor are we talking about the two-drummer approach of James Brown, who handled abrupt tempo changes in his two-hour medley/shows simply by having the drummers switch off from song to song. 

No. Righthanded Dale and lefthanded Coady, in a mirrored setup, play the exact same thing 90% of the time. This would not be very impressive in most bands, where the drummer just plays simple 4/4 kick-snare-kick-snare, but the new guy is keeping up with Dale Crover, the aforenamed Best Drummer Ever (you can keep your Bonhams and your Pearts and your Grohls, thanks very much) and his bizarre array of invented beats that only flirt with conventional time or structure, and matching him beat for beat for beat. It is amazing to watch live. When they do, on occasion, diverge and play complementary fills, the impact is heightened because of the lockstep they stay in the rest of the time.

The show I saw this week was part of their "Endless Residency" tour, where they are playing whole albums (a trend that I am wholeheartedly behind, by the way -- I saw Sonic Youth play Daydream Nation soup to nuts a few years ago and it was really something special). They played 1991's Bullhead and 1994's Stoner Witch, albums recorded long before the second drummer came aboard, but the way they integrated him into the songs made me wonder if Dale hadn't been double-tracking his drum parts all along, and that now they've finally just found a way to do it live. (All it took was finding the second-best drummer ever.) 

Is there anything cool about the Melvins? Nothing, and everything. Everything they do seems to be geared toward one thing: moving forward, amoeba-like, doing what they do and have always done. They know they're not getting rich. That was never the point. They've never had airplay, they've never been on MTV, and they look like they're actively trying to keep women away from them. But goddamn if last week in Brooklyn they didn't have a line around the corner, a packed house, a sold-out merch table, and more cute rock girls than I've seen at a show since the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head tour. 

If they come to your town, go see them. They may not be your cup of tea, but you will walk away impressed. Just don't forget your earplugs. 

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