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lowFLOWs: The Columbia Anthology ('91-'93)
“I got it! We’ll have them write hit songs,” says a tie-wearing record label exec on the cover of the legendary genre-defying punk band Minutemen’s Project: Mersh EP from 1985, poking fun at the notion of “selling out.”
Minutemen lead singer and guitarist D. Boon died that year in a van accident, leaving bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley devastated and largely uninspired to continue making music, until guitarist Ed Crawford, a hardcore Minutemen fan in his early 20s, convinced them to form a new trio.
This group, fIREHOSE, is often overshadowed by Minutemen in indie-rock history, with a somewhat more conventional style and less of an emphasis on political themes, but the fIREHOSE catalog is consistently rewarding and could be seen as the logical extension of the direction toward which Minutemen was heading. After three records on indie powerhouse SST Records, fIREHOSE joined the major label migration wave of the early ’90s and signed with Columbia Records.
The two-disc compilation lowFLOWs: The Columbia Anthology (’91-’93) arrives conveniently in conjunction with the band’s reunion tour, collecting remastered versions of the 1991 album Flyin’ the Flannel, the live EP Live Totem Pole from 1992, and the 1993 album Mr. Machinery Operator, plus the rarity “Max and Wells,” a few unnecessary tracks (two instrumental mixes and an edited version of “Witness”), and four additional live songs.
Those live tracks are decent but hardly essential, and a better representation of the band’s live fury is on Live Totem Pole, with a motley assortment of charged covers from Public Enemy, Wire and Blue Oyster Cult, among others. The excellent Flyin’ the Flannel launches with Watt’s mightily thumping two-octave bass riff that opens “Down with the Bass” and plows through rock numbers with ballad diversions and even a welcome cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow.”
Crawford sounds most comfortable singing his own lyrics rather than Watt’s unique folksy lingo, which suits Watt’s own low, gruff voice. Something seems off on Mr. Machinery Operator, although it has its standouts, and the guitar-heavy mix is problematic, since the Hurley/Watt rhythm section (which deserves a place in the pantheon) is key to the band’s identity. The trio’s final album is flawed, sure, but not a sellout.
Emily Beanblossom is best known as the spirited lead singer of the psych-punk Olympia band Christmas, and her debut album Pith, released under the moniker Ruby Fray, may be a surprise and possibly even a small revelation to Christmas fans. To a somewhat maddening degree, Pith is not easy to pin down, starting with the skeletal opener “And the Moon” with a primitive beatbox, backing vocals from a ghostly choir, and hinting strums. Switching gears, it’s followed by the playful, straight-up pop tune “Mint Ice Cream” with the “Be My Baby” drumbeat, nostalgic piano flourishes, and wistful electric guitar chords; Beanblossom duets with Calvin Johnson (of Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System), who ambles along with his distinctive, deep, love-it-or-hate-it voice that endearingly drifts in and out of tune.
The first two songs are hardly representative of the album, which then shifts dramatically to the minor-keyed “Closed Eye” with a disconnection between its artificial percussion and its country-death-ballad-esque fog. Roughly half of the album taps into this dark place and mood, including the haunting, minimal vocals/guitar track “Northern Washington” and “Jandk” (surely a tip of the hat to Jandek, the ultimate outsider-music enigma), with an organ drone, eerie flute, and unsettling drum punctuation with deep reverberation; it segues into “Penny,” possibly the album’s most oddball track, which eventually collapses into a free improv freakout. “What’s All This Talk” is another oddity, with just vocal harmonizing and handclaps, employing a sort of affected southern backwoods folk mixed with faux gospel soul; Beanblossom sings, “What’s all this talk about revolution? We’re already going to hell.”
The closest points of comparison that come to mind for Ruby Fray are the criminally under-recognized Lida Husik, K Records label mate Mirah, and at times, Grouper’s Liz Harris. Apart from the pop songs on Pith, it’s a bit difficult to latch onto the bipolar album, and the interrupted flow of the song sequence is often distracting. This writer can’t help but think that these songs would have worked much better individually or in a different configuration, instead of having the album jump around; nevertheless, Beanblossom shows an unfulfilled potential, with the key qualities of having a great voice and being able to shape a bewitching atmosphere.