Ask several discerning Melvins fans which of the group’s two dozen (well, something like that, I’ve lost count!) albums they consider the best, you’ll most likely get several wildly different answers. But then this isn’t any “normal” rock group; this is the Melvins, credited with being the forefathers of (depending on what fashion dictates), grunge, doom, drone and God knows what else. Frankly all these tags miss the point by a country mile – the one thing that the Melvins have been since their inception (and continue to be to this day) is a fiercely original rock band. In an age when the obvious money lies in rehashing past glories, the last three albums have just been straight up killer rock’n’roll records, no gimmicks or retro silliness. In all fairness, they are doing the whole X band plays classic album Z in full thing, but they have to make their money somehow! Another constant throughout the band’s existence has been their impish sense of humour – anyone remember Buzz trying to buy a mansion in Beverly Hills with his street cred? And so, it’s very much in character that this album that the band have released in their thirtieth (!) year is… A covers album (with a plethora of guests)! Given that the band added a second drummer “…because another drummer was the last thing we needed…”, this shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, also given that Buzz & Co. have been releasing a series of “Sugar Daddy” split EPs with bands that influenced them or have earned the erstwhile Seattle residents’ respect.
Cover songs are a hard thing to get right, since the best ones are not pointless retreads of tunes we all know backwards, but are drastic re-interpretations that take on an exciting identity outside of the source material. Strangely enough, the band are not consistently successful – the album is a mish-mash of the bleedin’ great and the forgettable, although there isn’t a truly bad track on the album (hey, it’s the fuckin’ Melvins after all!). The opener is a cover of “Warhead”, one of the best songs ever to emerge from the Neat stable – it lacks the scrappy charm of the original, but makes up for it by sounding just plain fucking HUGE – a promising start! The next two tracks are somewhat more pedestrian in nature, Queen and Ram Jam covers respectively; the former (though great fun) was never one of my favourite Queen songs, and frankly the version on this album does little to better it – it’s not even recognizably the Melvins, but then again maybe that in itself is something deserving of praise for a band with such a distinctive sound… The original “Black Betty” is an absolute corker of a song, total dance-able rock’n’roll, and though faring better than the previous track, thanks to typically top-notch Crover drumming and a pleasing punk edge, can’t quite hold a candle to the original, failing as it does to deviate enough to make it deserve repeat listens.
Track four, “Set It On Fire” marks a definite rise in quality, not just because it introduced me to the great source material (of which I was previously ignorant), but also because this track has been most definitely “Melvinsed”, courtesy of Buzz’s (seriously underrated) guitar playing. The upward trend continues with a fabulous Bowie cover, which also benefits from having the guest talent of J.G. Thirwell of Foetus fame – it (unsurprisingly) brings to mind the Lustmord collaboration album “Pigs of the Roman Empire”. A killer re-interpretation of a storming original. The Kinks cover that follows is a tune with which I was previously unfamiliar (well, it dates from 1979!) – frankly I prefer the version on this album to the original, and it has the merit of being Buzz’s standout vocal performance… to this point! Because track seven is the absolute standout of the album, and is in itself the reason to see money leaving your wallet – it’s a cover of the theme to John Waters’s classic masterpiece of filth and mayhem, “Female Trouble” (originally sung by the much missed Divine). John Waters is pretty much my favourite filmmaker of all time, so you could say that I’m biased, but then again this song also puts a brilliant new spin on the source material – upright bass, Buzz’s off-the-wall vocals (Tom Waits eat your heart out) and fantastic drumming! Subtle, sexy and funky work that I suspect was recorded by “Melvins Lite” as opposed to the monster four-piece line-up. Utterly fantastic stuff, one of the most innovative covers I’ve ever heard, sums up everything I’ve ever loved about the Melvins.
Well, that interpretation was always going to be a hard act to follow, but the two subsequent tracks (although they represent something of a lull in the album) are perfectly fun covers of (frankly superior) Fugs and Pop-O-Pies originals. O.K., I’ll admit I had to look the latter up, and their entire discography is now on my wantlist (thanks, Buzz!). The Roxy Music cover (“In Every Dreamhouse a Heartache”) that follows, however, is another absolute corker, superb, over-the-top vocals, noisy guitars and a spirit of mocking weirdness – VERY Melvins, a great achievement considering how great the original is!
Sadly, at this point, the album somewhat runs out of steam, as the penultimate Tales of Terror track is a cover of a song that (on researching it) I wasn’t very keen on in the first place – The Jam are another band I was never that keen on, and although the Melvins improve it immeasurably (with plenty of spit and venom), it really doesn’t rise above average. The oddest track was saved for last, an unrecognizable Throbbing Gristle cover that did little for me.
So, what is my final verdict on this album? Well, in a sense it’s quintessential Melvins – excellent musicianship and distinctive delivery in all aspects of the music, with a sense of mischievous fun permeating the whole album. The brilliant title and endearingly silly artwork as ever leave you with the impression that Buzz and co. are royally taking the piss, which is another consistent trait of the Melvins’ output, along with frequently releasing albums that have a little too much filler to be considered brilliant as coherent works. However, in keeping with that characteristic, there are a handful of songs that are genuinely fantastic re-imaginings of some truly classic source material – a frustratingly uneven (if typically Melvins) record – then again I can’t imagine that Buzz gives even the tiniest fuck what I or anyone else thinks! The Melvins are a band that do whatever they please, and this record is a very pleasing continuation of that philosophy.
Scribed by: Saúl Do Caixão