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It had me on the shitter for days back in 1996, that Supersuckers record, Must’ve Been High (though my coffee-grind-and-Ramen diet probably didn’t help gastrointestinal matters), where they replaced their signature guitar machismo with intimate hillbilly restraint. And it was on the pot that I realized my civic responsibility to the state of punk rock-I had to purge the roots from punk because this roots-punk thing clearly wasn’t working. I considered my options. Could I get on a plane with all six of my father’s AK-47s? Could Cousin Teddy mail one of his “special” letters to the Supersuckers’ headquarters in Seattle, or had the feds already caught up with his scheming?
Better yet, maybe I could hop on a fucking time machine, head back to late-’70s London, and strangle the Mekons’ limey necks-preventing anything past “Never Been in a Riot,” and stopping the following nightmarish chain of events: Johnny Thunders touching an acoustic guitar, the Meat Puppets,Jason and the Scorchers, Rank and File, the Knitters, Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, Social Distortion’s Prison Bound, the first 20 seconds of Fear’s “Beef Baloney,” and the entire populations of Festus, Missouri, and Uncle Tupelo, Mississippi. Besides the Replacements’ Hootenanny,almost nobody has gotten the roots-punk thing right. Bands either wind up all cartoonish and hokey and “aw shucks,” like the cast of Hee Haw,or they take it way too seriously with all that Mr. – Mojo – Rising – with – hellhounds – on – my – trail crap. Both ways it’s an Event, but Hootenanny came off more nonchalant and natural-probably because the ‘Mats were too drunk to even play, let alone figure out how to indulge their hillbilly desires.
My father, a big military man, once said: “Son, to kill your enemy, you must know your enemy.” So I’ve been keeping up with these cowpunks. Recently those Supersuckers tracks that had the diarrhea hound on my trial resurfaced, along with dang near everything else they recorded-compilation cuts, one-offs with sensitive badasses Steve Earle and Willie Nelson, incriminating tracks “from the vault” and from seven-inch singles (but nothing off the new, and gloriously ‘Nuge, The Evil Powers of Rock’N’Roll)on the modestly titled anthology The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.
Now, besides drugs (according to their lyrics, and not my access to public records via my father’s pre-incarceration military intelligence connections) and pulling the guitars-as-cocks move when playing live, there are two things the Supersuckers do well: writing obnoxiously puerile lyrics, and distilling Thin Lizzy hooks from their wanky classic rock surroundings. When the two collide, the Supersuckers almost live up to their anthology’s title. “Creepy Jackalope Eye,” “On the Couch,” the unreleased “Givin’ It Away,” and “Doublewide” all have rock-candy verses, with riffs as sweet as they are hard that let up in ringing power-chord bliss during their choruses-the classic bubblegum metal formula. They work well as “arena anthems”-getting boys to drive drunk and underage girls to flash boobies-but they’re also catchy enough to cut it in elevators 20 years from now.
Their Ice Cube cover, “Dead Homiez,” an embarrassingly derivative stab at Chili Peppers?style funk-punk, showcases the ‘Suckers’ commendable, though often laughable, “experimental” side (which in punk rock means having the ‘nads to play anything in which you can understand the lyrics). In all fairness, though, this side is the only thing that justifies the Supersuckers’ putting out a best-and-rest disc. Those Must’ve Been High drawlers work well here, sprinkled loosely between off-the-cuff rockers and stabs at Rolling Stones raunch, adding up to a real rock record-a cohesive collection of songs strung together to create a peaks-and-valleys narrative-and not just 12 variations of “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
But the Must’ve Been High tunes didn’t work on an album by themselves because they were too studied-musos working too hard to regurgitate Johnny Cash’s Up Through the Years: 1955?1957-the baritone voice, those clanky electric fills, and the spare but visceral bass and drum interplay. You never got the feeling anybody laid down rails and busted out a coke-frenzied “Let’s rawk!” before picking up their axe. Knoxville Girls give off a similarly studied vibe, but what keeps me from calling my uncle-a sniper living under an alias of a major New York politician-is their guitar sound and sense of humor.
Though they aren’t from Tennessee, nor are they girls, these chicks with dicks have either swilled enough shit-or, better yet, learned how to make you think they have (the band does feature roots-punk vets from the Gun Club, the Cramps, Pussy Galore, Sonic Youth, and the Chrome Cranks)-to yak up a backwoodsy debut, even if their backwoods is the East Village. Knoxville Girls begins with “Sixty-Five Days Ago,” an instrumental that pins a generic ’50s-ballad chord progression to a Duane Eddy?like, reverb-drenched cluster of low-register notes. In some ways a chickenshit monkey could have slapped these well-scuffed riffs together-ever hear Wilco and Son Volt stitch “Folsom Prison Blues” to a Gram Parsons?influenced Stones riff? But patch-jobs in this setting are unsettling because the guitarists sound like they’re twanging brittle, rusty strings with their amps at the bottom of an empty dumpster-all grit, with tinny echoes to provide depth. “Two Time Girl” ‘s primitive, rollicking stomp and “One Sided Love” ‘s caveman funk make Jon Spencer’s roots look as deep as Garth Brooks’s. Guitar figures wrap around the bass and drums so tightly, the groove seems like one big pulsating wad. But the wad isn’t the climax-the record ends with an eight-minute, one-chord Bo Diddley vamp, with the normally staccato groove ironed out by slide guitar swoops. The little number is about a workin’ man coming home to his “low-cut apron”?clad sweetie, who has something for him in her oven. He sticks his head in, and ummmmmmm mmmmm,it sure tastes sweet. Judging from the way the bawdy backbeat builds, that ain’t no cornbread he’s eatin’.
And seeing how we’re on the topic of cunning linguists: if you can hear them under the drunken din of off-time and out-of-tune instrumentation, the lyrics on the Neckboners’- ‘scuse me, the Neckbones’-latest, The Lights Are Getting Dim,are the most brilliantly obnoxious punk scrawl since Crime’s San Francisco’s Doomed. Well, actually, nothing tops “Crack Whore Blues,” off the Neckbones’ last album, but listen to this: “I’m going out again/I can’t face what I’ve done/It’s a world of sin/And a man’s gotta have his fun.” Or my favorite: “With my bitch in my car, I am the seventh son, I’m the vice lord.” There are two types of rock songs, see-your “Personality Crisis”es and your “Shake Appeal”s-and the Neckbones do ’em both. “Double Time” is a hook-laden, two-chord barrelhouse barnburner, with a David Jo?on-Novocain slur and a mangled Chuck Berry lick that makes Thunders sound like George Benson. “64 Days” has that I’m-a-junked-up-bad-motherfucker James Williamson swagger, complete with strangled lead bursts and rolling basslines played on guitar. “Ocean of Blue” is the record’s “Private World.” And “Possum Breath” is its “Raw Power.”
The reason why I won’t put buckshot in their heads is because, just like the ‘Mats before them, the Neckbones are approaching roots music head-on, Jack Daniels with no chaser. “One-Two-Three-Four/Now the lights are getting dim.” . . . Yes, they are. And as an acoustic guitar plucked out the rest of the album’s closer, the “Sweet Virginia”?like blues ballad, “Red Wagon,” I called up my aunt in Mississippi.
Fat Possum, Box 1923, Oxford MS 38655; In The Red, 2627 E. Strong Place, Anaheim CA 92806; Sub Pop, 1932 First Avenue, Suite 1103, Seattle WA 98101. The Neckbones play the Continental October 29; Knoxville Girls play the Cooler October 31; Supersuckers play the Knitting Factory November 7.