Like a velvet glove cast in more velvet
I never understood Urge Overkill, the phenomenon. They released their breakout, that Neil Diamond cover on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack of which I'd guess 99% of you reading this could sing at least a few lines, on the Stull EP a while before the movie came out and I thought it was OK. I say this not as one of those poo-poo'ing quasi-tastemakers, but as a total devotee of Supersonic Storybook, the preceding phenomenal sounding album with a bunch of great songs. That album is also topical this week, as it features a really nice Chicago cultural trifecta of the early 90s.
The front cover has the three guys, King, Nash and Blackie, mugging fish-eye style with their lounge-thing-cum-70s-novelty-act-cum-god,-whatever-the hell-they-were-doing act in full effect. By contrast, back cover is a drawing by Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame. The art is pretty average for him, a surrealistic landscape scene with the band popping out in Dali style. The faces of UO always seemed like a perfect match for Clowes droopy-eyed style to me, but, in all honesty, the image is pedestrian. That it's a non-descript and unremarkable piece of art from one of our finest cartoonists isn't that surprising; Clowes' loathing of most of his time in Chicago is pretty well documented and from what I know most of his album work was mercenary rather than for the love of the band. (For that, I'm relying on my dim memory of a few Comics Journal interviews here... feel free to skewer me if I've played too fast and loose with the facts.) So, why get Clowes at all? I actually had the chance to pose the question to the band at a post-college show party in '92, but I didn't get much of an answer. There were, after all, treats in another room far more interesting than me, the comics dork. Perhaps the best thing to say is that even mediocre Clowes has style and style is a primary UO concern.
The album itself features some fantastic guitar sound (no, not warm and punchy). Though it's basically a pop-rock record in the Cheap Trick mold, the distortion on Storybook achieves a roar unequalled by bands attempting to be three times as fierce. This production is courtesy of SYF quiz star Steve Albini, who, I hope, needs no introduction. (I've always secretly suspected that the Shellac guitar sound was three parts Rapeman plus one part Storybook.) Though originally from Montana and really a international figure, Albini has produced an incredible number of local bands and his Electrical Studios is one of those places that keeps the Chicago music scene vital. He's also played all ages shows and alternative venues in a city where these things are more and more difficult to do. Finally, he's an eloquent spokesman for DIY (aka self reliance, aka Learn How) as a life principle. Actually, he's just plain eloquent. I really hope someone is gathering up his writings for posterity, because there is a lot more out there equal to The Problem With Music.
Finally, Urge themselves. I'll let "(Today Is) Blackie's Birthday" make my case for them and Storybook with one note: Good birthday songs are tough to come by period, but a well-done one that's got suicide as a subtext and isn't smarmy? Unheard of.
(Today Is) Blackie's Birthday - Urge Overkill
Note from Amy: Nobody answered our Chicago Week contest question correctly. A refresher: At what Chicago establishment (bar and/or music venue) did Shellac play its first show? To be fair, it was a really hard question. The answer: The Augenblick. Any of you remember the place (on Damen at Byron)? It used to be a semi-regular haunt of mine--probably best known for it's Irish music nights. Anyway, I'll be contacting one of you lucky losers later to let you know that thanks to collective ignorance, you've won a CD.