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Overblown: 6 (Mis)labeled Grunge Bands Worth a Second Look

In the same way groups are getting swept under the current tag of garage rock or revival rock by lazy critics, I seek to expose grunge groups that were anything but.

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I’m not that worried about losing indie cred at this point. I recently got rejected for a position at Spin Magazine, after all, but I need to admit, however uncool it is to say now, the music I grew up with was grunge. Even before I knew what angst was, I knew all the words to “Black Hole Sun,” and when I was 8 and Vitalogy came out, I spent 10 weeks allowance to get a cassette copy (even though I was just doing it to emulate my brother). Since 1996, when the movement died, grunge has not become nostalgia for me in the same way it has with many peers. No, instead I still commonly play CDs by bands included under the grunge label. But, really, what was grunge, besides a flannel fashion spread in Vogue and something for Beavis and Butthead to make fun of occasionally? It was supposed to be sludgy, but even its heaviest bands like Alice in Chains were able to record 2 brilliant acoustic EPs. It was supposed to be angst-filled, but if you’ve ever listened to a Mudhoney album, you’ll quickly realize their caustic, sarcastic lyrics were more a rough (ok, VERY rough) amalgamation of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed than they were pulled from a 15-year-old’s diary. It was supposed to come from the Northwest, but Local H came from Zion, Illinois, and Everclear from California. In the same way groups are getting swept under the current tag of garage rock or revival rock by lazy critics, I seek to expose grunge groups that were anything but. Ladies and Gentlemen, the grunge bands that were not:

1. THE SCREAMING TREES

One of the most prominent examples of a group in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong producer. This psych rock group got their start on Greg Ginn’s SST labels, providing a mellow, slightly melodic counterpoint to the screeching hardcore the label was putting out at the time. Singer Mark Lannegan, who has since gone on to have an incredibly successful and high quality solo career, anchored this act, which also featured drummer extraordinaire Barrett Martin, whose groves just as often invoked tribal rhythms (see the syncopation on minor hit “Nearly Lost You” or the magnificent hand drumming on “Gospel Plow”) as they did standard rock drumming. The band scored a breakthrough when Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell produced their 1992 major label debut “Sweet Oblivion,” but, except for the aforementioned “Nearly Lost You,” the album’s sales were hindered by its experimentation and slow pace. It took the band four years to release another album, but their near-perfect swansong, “Dust,” was worth the wait. Full of sitar, keyboards, acoustic guitars, and even a little Tabla, I’ve heard the album classified as psychedelic, blues, folk-rock, or root rock, and all of the above apply to certain aspects. One label that simply does not fit is grunge.

2. MUDHONEY

If everyone who had hailed the Hives as the second coming of the Stooges (and we all remember how shitty Tyrannosaurus Hives was, don’t we?) had whipped out their copy of My Brother The Cow before turning on the hype machine, they would have at least changed it to “the third coming.” Mudhoney were one of a few bands who rallied against the grunge label, most notably with their combustible contribution to the Singles soundtrack, “Overblown,” which, with trademark Mudhoney sarcasm declared “Everybody loves us / Everybody’s gettin kinda old / Couldn’t hold a regular job / Long live rock ‘n’ roll” in response to all the attention that was being held to Seattle at the time. Although certainly not a group who warrant a complete discography purchase (One thing you could not accuse Mudhoney of was straying from their simple garage rock formula), the band was able to trick a major label into release some of the snottiest, loudest least cool, garage rock of the 90s.  

3. EVERCLEAR

Always one of the oddest inclusions in the grunge category, one must wonder how this group, who are a name change away from Cheap Trick or Big Star got included in the grunge movement. The world weary power pop of singer/songwriter/guitarist Art Alexis, bassist Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Eklund, were able to relay tales of the welfare state, deadbeat dads, and living in a Prozac nation with accompaniment suited for wedding dances, teenage sock-hops, and driving mid summer with the top down. Although their albums often were filled with duds (I’d recommend 200’4s excellent best of Ten Years Gone as a starting point), and their radio hits were rarely their best material, the band’s solid, catchy and truly moving output dwarfs their faults. Simply listen to “Why I Don’t Believe in God,” “Heroin Girl,” or “Songs From An American Movie pt 2,” and be transported away to a world where even the sharpest of pain comes with a sugar coating. 

4. THE BREEDERS

Hey, distorted guitars, simple drumming- must be grunge? Try again, with Kim Deal’s logical step forward from the Pixies, where she took the madness and whimsy of her previous group and streamlined it, just a little bit. Both Pod and Last Splash were albums of spunky pop punk, with Deal’s vocals providing just enough smoothness and melody to counteract the jagged guitar work, guttural basslines and bashed out drumlins.

5/6. GOO GOO DOLLS & SOUL ASYLUM

With both of these bands, I am not applying a label of quality (although I do admittedly have a soft spot for parts of both bands’ catalogs), but instead simply stating that unless we want to call The Replacements Grunge, these two bands can’t be called grunge either. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a pretty legacy that the ‘matts bequeathed, but one can’t deny when listening to large parts of A Boy Name Goo (Minus horrid uber-hit “Name”) or …And The Horse They Road In On (especially hit “Runaway Train”) that they don’t hear the Beatles-gone-through-the-gutter-and-permafrost sound that the Replacements perfected 7 years prior.

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Crossed Keys – Saviors

Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds

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Crossed Keys Saviors

Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.

Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.

For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.

(Hellminded Records)

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Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”

A glorious sound of a time gone by

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Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.

I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).

To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.

Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.

While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.

Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.

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