Sunday, March 5, 2017

Review of Minutemen's "Project: Mersh"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music Website. I wrote it as part of a special project where 30 or 40 of us each picked an album that we wanted to see reviewed that didn't previously have one on the site, and then everyone was given someone else's pick at random to review.

Review Summary: I don't know that this album interested me enough to go out and explore the rest of Minutemen's catalog, but I definitely liked the EP enough to keep it on my iPod.

Minutemen are considered one of the more historically important punk bands in U.S. history. So imagine my surprise on first listen when the music turned out to be nothing like what I expected. Instead of three-chord minimalism a la The Ramones, I found some cleanly strummed funky guitar and trumpet to go with the fast drums and unadorned vocals.

For the uninitiated, Minutemen were a 3-piece outfit from San Pedro, California, active through the early to mid-'80s. The band consisted of D. Boon on guitar and vocals, Mike Watts on bass and vocals, and George Hurley on drums. Their career was cut short by the death of D. Boon in a van accident on December 22, 1985.

I listened to some of their earlier material in order to have some context for this review, and from what I heard, it sounds as though the band was much more stereotypically punk in their early days, favoring shorter, louder and less structured songs, but that for them, punk was more an attitude than a set of musical boundaries. Consequently, later in their existence, their music evolved to include elements of funk, jazz, psychedelic rock and R&B, and they are even credited as a band that was influential in the inception of alternative rock. They also came to occasionally add other instruments to the basic guitar-bass-drum mix, such as piano, trumpet, and on this album, even a synthesizer. 

Project: Mersh is a 6-song EP that was the immediate followup to the album considered to be the band's masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime. The joke here is that this album is supposedly their nod towards a more commercial (or "mersh") sound. The cover features a painting by D. Boon of three somewhat disreputable-looking record company executives having an "Aha!" moment as to which direction they should push Minutemen into for their next record. "I got it!," one of them exclaims. "We'll have them write hit songs."

Having listened to Double Nickels, I can tell you that any move in the direction of commercialism from that album to this one is marginal at best. The songs here might be a little more conventionally structured, and the production slightly more polished, but pop music this isn't. As Watts joked in later years, their "commercial" album (Project: Mersh) only sold about half as many copies as their "art" album (Double Nickels).

My favorite song on this EP is a track penned by Watts called "Take Our Test". It has the best vocal on the album, and some really nifty strummed guitar with simple-but-effective solos. "King of the Hill" and "The Cheerleaders" are both anti-war songs written by D. Boon. "King of the Hill" is the faster of the two, and to my mind, the more interesting. It's another song with some tasteful guitar work and some particularly impressive drumming by Hurley. It harks back to 1960s psychedelic biker music. "The Cheerleaders" is slower, and while there's some nice trumpet work here by guest musician Crane (a.k.a. Richard Alan Krieger), the vocal is more strident. "Tour Spiel" is also a decent song. Another Watts number, it's a somewhat humorous look at the life of the touring musician.

There's also a cover of Steppenwolf's "Hey Lawdy Mama" (for a punk band, Minutemen seems to have an unusual fondness for '60s bands like Steppenwolf and Creedence Clearwater Revival), and a number immediately following "Tour Spiel" called "More Spiel", which just repeats the last line of "Tour Spiel" again and again while the band noodles around instrumentally until the whole song deconstructs itself.

Although I'd heard of Minutemen before, listening to this EP, as well as some of their earlier music, helped me to understand where some later artists that I am familiar with such as New York bands Squirrels From Hell and MediaCrime got their inspiration from. 

On the whole, I liked this album more than not. I don't know that it interested me enough to run out and explore the rest of their catalog, but I'm more than happy to keep Project: Mersh on my iPod.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars