U-Men - U-Men

by Jon Burke Rating:8 Release Date:2017-11-03
U-Men - U-Men
U-Men - U-Men

On Friday, November 3rd, Sub Pop will release a comprehensive, 30-track, anthology from Seattle’s post-punk originators, The U-Men. Simply titled, U-Men, the collection consists of the band’s entire studio-recorded catalog, unreleased songs, photos, and interviews with the seminal Seattle rockers. Though they only played together eight years, the U-Men’s influence on the Pacific Northwest music scene has lasted decades beyond the band’s 1989 break-up. What the U-Men collection highlights is the band’s genre, and sub-genre, spanning style which produced a unique, grimy sound that unwittingly influenced a generation.

The U-Men’s early work was released on Homestead Records, a label that put out important records by Big Black, Naked Raygun and Sonic Youth among many, many others. Eventually the band moved over to Sub Pop, arguably Seattle’s most influential indie record label. The transition from their rougher early recordings to their final polished songs is remarkable in how completely original the journey seems. Though the promo materials reference The Birthday Party, Butthole Surfers and Big Black as influences and peers, there is a feculence to these songs that is less playful or intentionally provocative than those bands. It’s almost as if the U-Men unintentionally incorporated the damp, rotted depression of their hometown into their music. Consequently, though they don’t have the charisma or raw power of their peers, their sound is completely unique.

U-Men opens with “Blight,” a bass-heavy Cramps-esque rocker which bounces along at a steady breakneck pace. U-Men frontman, John Bigley, croons his way through a dark meditation on city life. Bassist Jim Tillman puts the band through its paces with his dynamic playing which truly becomes the centerpiece for the track. In moments it’s almost as if Bigley is struggling to keep up, singing slightly off-beat in a manner than adds a jazz element to the whole affair.

The idea of a cohesive “Seattle sound” has always been a rather pointless exercise in comparing apples to oranges. That said, U-Men tracks like “Flowers DGIH” and “The Fumes” share some common musical ground with fellow Seattleites Soundgarden and Skin Yard—two bands featured, with The U-Men, on the now famous Deep Six compilation. Grinding guitars, distinct soaring vocals, and Sabbath-inspired drum sounds were commonalties though the results were all distinctive. The U-Men also frequently incorporated sludgy guitars like another brilliant PNW act, The Melvins.

Highlights from the collection include “Gila,” a tight, chugging track featuring seething vocals by Bigley reminiscent of David Yow’s work with The Jesus Lizard. The bold, explosive swagger of “2 X 4” layers mountains of guitar under Bigley yowling. The overall effect is like David Lee Roth fronting Black Sabbath. “Dig It a Hole” boasts gorgeous production and a whiplashing beat that blasts and subsides, again and again, with Charlie Ryan’s drum clash bringing the song into deep metal territory. “Pay the Bubba” offers a panting, out of breath, rockabilly thump. The sultry sex strut of “Bad Little Woman” feels like the best early-Butthole Surfers song you’ve never heard.

The U-Men imploded several years before “grunge” even technically started, but their sound, as compiled on U-Men, was clearly a major influence on the genre. The sludgy guitars, John Bigley’s stage presence and the tonally dark undercurrents to nearly every track make The U-Men one of the most important bands to ever come out of Seattle. It would be a mistake to pass up this collection simply because the 90s Seattle bands The U-Men influenced are now passé. There is an undeniable immediacy to these 30 songs which draws a clear line, circumventing all the 90s Seattle hype, between this underappreciated band and relevant indie acts like Protomartyr and Preoccupations which makes U-Men worth your time and attention.

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