Squirrel Bait

In a particularly snotty mood I threw these two bands together on the same page, and while I realize right now that nobody likes you when you're snotty and clever (unless you're singing rock'n'roll, heh heh), I'm just going to leave'em together anyway. The most obvious thing these two bands have in common is pretty obvious from a casual listen to even the most obvious listeners: they sound exactly the same. Or at least Squirrel Bait's debut and Nevermind do. Yeah, I know what you're saying, "So what? A quijillion Silver Pearl Temple Pilots have ripped off Nirvana, we don't need another grunge clone." Back up there a bit, buddy. Squirrel Bait came first. They debuted in 1985, four years before Nirvana (whose first album sucked, anyway). And the thing is Squirrel Bait weren't blindingly influential, either; they were simply a well above average indie rock combo with a handful of blistering punk-pop classics in them. Nothing more and nothing less. Which is exactly what Nirvana were. Not to deny Nirvana's historic importance - they kicked through the doors to the mainstream and made the post-punk indie-rock stylings that had been squelched in the '80s by overproduced arena rock/arena disco crap accessible to a mass audience. As it turned out, radio programmers and record company executives were flat-out WRONG - the public did want punk, they did want bands that were weird and a little scruffy around the edges. Too bad most of the great post-punk pioneers had either broken up or become half-hearted washed-ups by the time this truth became revealed. For that, Nirvana deserve a medal of honor; their cultural importance is the equivalent of the Beatles in the '60s and the Sex Pistols in the '70s. Perhaps best of all, Nirvana was the St. George that slew the vile dragon of late-80s poodle-hair metal (and though it's overlooked, the not particularly vile but still not very good dragon of late-80s art metal. Hey Queensryche, how are the bars these days?). YESSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You kids today don't know how good ya got it. I came of age during the unquestionably worst years of rock'n'roll, unless the pre-Beatles early '60s count - the Metal Age. My formative junior high and high school days were soundtracked by classmates' $8 cassettes of Def Leppard's Hysteria, an album which I have never bought or sat down and listened to from beginning to end, yet the words of which I know all by heart because they played every song off the damn thing on the radio for two fucking years straight. So die, Great White Lion Snake, die, thou base villian! Whatever you say about its quality, only a person with a poor memory would deny that radio in the '90s is much, much better than radio in the '80s.

Special to my generation: Have the honesty to admit our music was crap. Don't become like the stoned campy '70s kids who insist with a straight face that the Carpenters and Kiss and all the crap they grew up on was good, really! For pity's sake, people hated the '70s for some very good reasons - just why the hell does anyone with a smidgen of taste want to revive them? I'm saying this because in the past year Spin has jumped on the '80s nostalgia bandwagon - their last issue profiled Motley Crue and even went so far to say that some of their songs were "classics". This disturbs me. When people can't tell the difference between disposable camp and genuinely good pop culture, and insist that laughably absurd drivel is "good - really" (hiding behind irony, of course, always in the disgusting '90s Urge OverHyped way hiding behind irony), our shared pop culture begins to sink into mediocrity from the weight of its collective garbage. And when our culture goes - and pop culture is the only culture we really have in modern America - the rest of society isn't far behind. Wait a minute, I don't like that last thought of mine - I sound too much like Alan Bloom or George Will. But you see my point, and despising modern mediocrity doesn't necessarily make you a crotchety conservative.

Well, it looks like I got thoroughly and completely off the subject of Nirvana, but you need a cultural context to understand Nirvana, because Nirvana were primarily about cultural context. I remember my first "Smells Like Teen Spirit" memory. I was listening late at night to KABF public radio out of Little Rock, AR. The DJ for their weekly alternative rock show played this song twice within the hour. I was surprised because it was quite good, unlike a lot of now-forgotten punk and alternative bands they played. I figured that I'd read about the band a few months from then in Spin or something, and I might come across their album. I did find it about a week later and was quite disappointed - none of the songs were as good as the one I heard on the radio, and they all tended to sound the same. But it provided some modest pleasures, since it was really melodic and catchy, and it rocked pretty hard, even if I'd already heard several other bands do this better. So like everybody else I was caught off guard by Nirvana's success - I don't remember when I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on mainstream radio, but I probably went, "What?!?" and wondered if I'd stumbled inadvertently onto some cool college radio station, until "Every Rose Has Its Thorns" came on next to dispel that idea. If you grew up in the '80s, you know just how important Nirvana's breakthrough was, and for all his personal problems Kurt Cobain was a far more positive role model than Asshole Rose of Guns'n'Posers. Not that Kurt was a very good role model, but an improvement's an improvement, and he didn't bait blacks and gays. As for the music, Nirvana are far less important and lasting. More cultural signifiers than musical innovators, Nirvana are closer to Elvis than the Beatles. Like Elvis, their music probably won't cross generations very well, because though they were important popularizers - Elvis to black music, Nirvana to post-punk - their own music doesn't measure up to the music of the forebears they popularized (compare Elvis to Chuck Berry, Nirvana to the Replacements).

Here's an interesting link on the Squirrel Bait Family Tree. "Now including 679 links" - I'm not going to plough through all of'em, but you can at D.P.'s Complete Nirvana Links!.

Squirrel Bait (1985) ****

Of all the places on earth you'd never expect Louisville, Kentucky to become an indie-punk mecca, but the scene there is astonishly fertile, with several quite good bands having emerged from there since the mid-'80s. Of course, about half of'em are Squirrel Bait offshoots or somehow related to the family tree, and since I don't own any Slint or Palace Brothers records I'm not going to go into any lengthy details I don't know a lot about. Squirrel Bait, the teenage training camp for a handful of indie rock's future semi-successfuls, was in its prime a very exciting little combo. The first cut I ever heard was "Sun God" off of the 1987 Wailing Ultimate Homestead label compilation. Most of the bands on that comp were fairly mediocre, but several cuts made me want to check out the bands sampled, as good compilations are supposed to do. The amazing thing about "Sun God" is how much it sounds like "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The melody's different, but the quiet verse exploding into a howling chorus structure is followed note for note, and the lead singer Peter Searcy's throat-ripped screams are a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain's. Actually, both Searcy and Cobain were imitating the three-packs a day rasp of Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. Throw in an equal dose of overdrive Husker Du thrash and you've got Squirrel Bait's basic sound. The songs on this debut all follow in the same style, but man do they pack a wallop. The aptly titled "Hammering So Hard", "Thursday", "When I Fall", and "Disguise" all threaten to rip holes in your ears and speakers. The melodies aren't the equal of the energy, but the energy level's so high - heck, these guys were still hyperactive kids when they recorded this - it makes up for that. Produced or engineered by Steve Albini, as if there's a difference, it's an Albini production. Which means the vocals are buried and it's raw, raw, RAW, sometimes uncomfortably so. That's warning to folks who don't like that type of approach, but if you can deal with thrash and incomprehensible vocals, you'll get a kick out of it. I did.

Squirrel Bait: Skag Heaven (1987) **

It sounds a lot like the first album, only they've slowed down a bit and developed some actual dynamics in their band playing, and they don't have any good songs. I can deal with the first two changes - dynamics are actually an improvement. Slowing down's not - this record has little of the visceral thrill of the debut. But if they'd solved the third part of the dilemma, I could deal with their maturing into mid-tempo punkers. The second strongest song's the opener, "Kid Dynamite". They also have a song obviously inspired by Husker Du's "How To Skin A Cat". The fish cover's even uglier than the music inside (not really an insult. When it comes to indie punk, ugly can be beautiful). Most of the rest passes me by; the songs here don't really all sound the same, but they might as well because I can't remember hardly any of them. And the best song? A cover of Phil Ochs' "Tape From California" - nothing else even comes close. The best song on your album being a cover is not generally recognized as a good sign. After this the band split up due to "heading off to college is breaking up that old gang of mine" blues, and I think everybody in this band formed at least three other bands.

Nirvana: Bleach (1989) **1/2

The worth of Nirvana albums is proportional to the influences they're drawing from. Kurt Cobain's genius, if he could be said to have any (which he didn't) was to synthesize a variety of sources into a stew that smelled kind of new (but really wasn't) and tasted good (which it did sometimes). Here Kurt's drawing from Black Sabbath, the Melvins, the Wipers, Motorhead, Big Black, and some obscure outfit called the Shocking Pinks, who provided Nirvana's debut single, "Love Buzz". Never heard the Pinks and don't want to 'cause "Love Buzz" sucks. As does most of this album. And you can tell because the influences I mentioned above are all kind of alright sometimes and a big pile of stinking doodoo more of the time, which pretty much sums up the album. The two knockouts are "Negative Creep", which really is creepy and really does sound like Lemmy (of Motorhead) stoned. The other is "About A Girl", which is better here than on the unplugged version (which goes without saying), but not by that much. A few of the others like "Scoff" and "Floyd the Barber" have some interesting riffs/lyrics/melodies but not all at the same time and while the riffs show promise the melodies are pretty skimpy. And the whole thing's too slow, sinking into Sabbath/Melvins sludge that feels like banging your head on ludes. Not my idea of good hard rock. Oh yeah, they went through about four or five drummers and I'm not sure who this one is but I can see why they got rid of him, 'cause he doesn't provide the forward momentum this band needs for takeoff. Recorded for $600 and sounds like it, only not in a good way.

Nirvana: Nevermind (1991) ****

I already did the long analysis in my long-winded introduction so I'm just going to concentrate on the music. Nirvana make a great improvement over the debut, for three reasons. #1, they drafted drummer David Grohl, whose powerful, speedy drumming provides Nirvana with a lot of their, well, power and speed. #2, they got a real producer, Butch Vig, who streamlines their sound for an accessible impact. #3, Kurt goes pop and writes some really nifty melodies and killer hooks. When he said that it sounded like Cheap Trick, hipsters sniggered, but don't you snigger, 'cause Nirvana really do sound like "He's A Whore"-era Trick - have you ever heard Cheap Trick's debut? Nirvana's other obvious influences this time round are the aforementioned Squirrel Bait, the Replacements, Husker Du, and the Pixies, the last of whom Kurt unabashedly admitted to ripping off - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was apparently a tribute. After that stunning opener, the songs start to sound formulaic, though - quiet verse, buildup, raging chorus, fade back to quiet verse, repeat. The best songs are the ones that don't follow this structure, which are.....um, "Breed", "Territorial Pissings", and "On A Plain" - the last one only kind of. However, if you can get past the samey structures, which I don't always feel in the mood to do, you find quite a bit to enjoy, like the manic-depressive "Lithium" and the one in which Kurt insults his fans and likes to shoot his gun. He's got a lot to answer for, with a bunch of clueless grunge clones faking angst and misery and ruining the airwaves, but I forgive him - after all, blaming Cobain for Fionna Apple is like blaming Neil Young for America. I'm probably overrating this - I remember when it came out I didn't play it a whole lot - but hey, historical/cultural importance is important, and it just doesn't feel right giving less than four stars to a document of this kind. Besides, it all kicks ass on the radio.

Nirvana: Incesticide (1992) **

Our oh-so-principled Nirvana really do sell out by dumping a pile of worthless B-sides and assorted crap on gullible fans, most of whom bought this the week it came out and got really pissed off. I've met more than a few people who bought it and couldn't make it all the way through because they got so disgusted. Which is too bad because Nirvana hide their second-greatest ever song at the very end, "Aneurysm" that does not follow the standard Nirvana verse/chorus structure and that you can actually dance to - "come on over, and do the twist". "And shoot the shit", which a friend of mine hates because it reminds him of rednecks, which makes me wonder why a guy like Kurt who got beat up by rednecks chose to sing in a redneck accent. Maybe he was making fun of them. There's a couple of other decent songs, like the one in which Kurt wants Grandma to take him home and the reverse-sexism (man hating by a man?) of "Been A Son". Which brings me to the liner notes, which are unbelievably arrogant and insufferable, rock-star whining about nonsense like the "corporate white man's idea of a docile woman" - oh, please! The only thing worse than an ignorant redneck right-winger is an ignorant hippy left-winger, because neither one has the faintest idea of what they're talking about and they insist on babbling about it with absolute puritanical conviction. Yeah, I hate homophobes and racists, too, Kurt, and I suppose you had some positive influence in that direction by showing kids it wasn't cool - unlike those hair-metal bands like Motley Crue and Guns'n'Roses - but your liberalism's recieved, from MTV mostly, and I don't care a lot for even well-meaning propaganda unless it's really smart. Which yours isn't.

Nirvana: In Utero (1993) ***

Steve Albini produced, and it sounds like a Steve Albini production for the most part. Which isn't a good thing, because part of what made Nevermind a success was its integral pop element. And as anyone who pays attention knows, Albini hates pop with a passion surpassed only by his hatred of the human voice. Kurt also wanted to make a less accessible album to quash "sell out!" cries, which means that large portions of this album are hard to listen to. He tries to find alternatives to his standard song structures, which are now cliches, and only partially succeeds. "Dumb" possesses the album's best melody and is the easy highlight for me, and the riff-rock of "tourette's" is very exciting. But "Rape Me" is the most overblown case of egotistical rock-star whining ever and extremely offensive. Let's get this straight, Kurt: I realize that in the '90s it's cool to pretend that you're a victim, but like most people who claim victim status, YOU ARE NOT A VICTIM. You're just a normal person with problems - well, okay, you aren't normal, and you've got that heroin habit, but you have never had to suffer the real pain of rape and you should not use it as a metaphor because it degrades women who have been victims of it, "Mr. Sensitive". Boy, that was harsh, but you asked for it. Wait a minute, this is nuts....I'm talking to a dead person?!? Actually I'm addressing most of this to fans who take his bullshit a little too seriously, of which there are a number. Anyway, the sound of this record is an improvement overall - it has a real muscular presence. But the songs aren't as good, and the formula's wearing thin. And worst of all, the lyrics are impossible for me to take. Stop apologizing, Kurt. And stop whining, too. I guess your anguish was real, since you killed yourself, but personal anguish is in and of itself not attractive or poetic. In fact, your anguish is downright unattractive, at least to me.

Nirvana: Unplugged (1994) ***

I generally have no use for unplugged live albums - they're essentially crass cash-ins for people to prop up on their coffeetable the month they come out and never listen to again. This one's different, though, since acoustic Nirvana sounds like a wild idea. And what do you know, it actually works. To tell you the truth, I never listen to any of the Nirvana songs on here, which aren't this record's purpose, anyway. No, the real purpose of this record is let Kurt the fan pay homage to several musicians he loves, an admirable idea that works just swell in execution. For turning kids on to the Vaselines, Meat Puppets, Leadbelly, and early David Bowie Kurt earns himself a gold star. Which in the end provides conclusive proof, if you needed it by this point, that Kurt's true talent was that of a popularizer. Especially when you consider how the Nirvana compositions pale side by side with the covers.

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