Music Reviews
Pure / Head / Goat / Liar / Down

The Jesus Lizard Pure / Head / Goat / Liar / Down

(Touch and Go) Rating - 9/10

One thing that will never be taken from The Jesus Lizard is their propensity for perverse annihilation and the unabashed glee with which they pursue it.  Easily The Jesus Lizard in their heyday were one of those bands that lived to brutalize an audience, whether that be through their recordings or live shows.  Twenty years after Pure and The Jesus Lizard still sounds as threatening as ever, an adrenalized noise generator whose songs coarse through your being like sonic shrapnel.  Touch and Go Records saw fit to reintroduce their pre-majors output (Pure, Head, Goat, Liar and Down) at the near-inception of a new decade as if understandably disappointed with how the 00s failed to produce anything like The Jesus Lizard, (Pissed Jeans the only exception I can think of), and enhances the albums for those of us now spoiled by new-fangled digital methodology. 

It is possible that producer Steve Albini’s initial treatment of the band’s material adhered to his “fuck digital” mantra, his own Big Black discography featuring all-analog masters intended to sound like shit on a digital stereo system.  But, to be fair, CDs generally didn’t sound that great in the 90s.  Albini, with Shellac co-conspirator Bob Weston, got the chip off his shoulder long enough to make these albums sound livelier and more dangerous than ever.  And then, he was nice enough to include some live extras and singles to each reissue.  He’s getting generous in his old age.

With abrasive, sly and groove-oriented conviction, The Jesus Lizard embodied an extreme, taking the Robert Christgau-coined “Pigfuck” genre into an era better prepared to accept it thanks to the 90s “alterna-boom” and bands like Big Black, The Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth.  As the underground was no longer buried under miles of obscurity, the pages of Rolling Stone and Spin were somehow attempting relevance by documenting its emergence and excitement; The Jesus Lizard always labeled, (as I remember), “the best live band.”  Singer, David Yow, exhibitionistic and exuberant, represents the sort of performance nihilism that’s been seemingly absent in terms of current independent music, which is a tragedy and detriment to any “alternative” scene.  Music apart from the mainstream benefits a bit from brutality, its alienating tendencies typically winning over any generation’s oddball music fan largely unimpressed with spoon fed mediocrity.  Who understood that better than The Stooges, Iggy Pop’s own self-mutilation and defiling sexuality amplified by a band often reviled for its simplicity?  In a time of peace and flowers, The Stooges wrote about boredom, which sort of says it all.

But, while The Stooges eventually became an iconic and underlying presence in American rock n’ roll, The Jesus Lizard seems like a relic, bottled up with a few holes generously left in the cap for life support while unable to frolic now that their time has ended.  Their albums don’t sound old, or even dated, but fail to transcend the 90s.  They are to be acknowledged, appreciated, but have been left alone, untapped. 

We can hope that the next litter of bands to emerge in the upcoming decade, (all eagerly begging for someone to hear what they posted on MySpace), bring this level of terror back into independent, or even mainstream, music.  In the meantime, let’s reminisce:

The first question asked by David Yow is this:

“Do you think you’d like to have a blockbuster up your ass? / Do you think you’d like that? / Well, do ya, motherfucker?”

Sort of sets the mood.

Guitarist Duane Denison and former Scratch Acid members, Yow and bassist, David Wm. Sims, released Pure in 1989.  An EP propelled by a drum machine, Pure is a close facsimile of Big Black’s aesthetic, though somehow more aggressive.   

As a vocalist, Yow is tantamount to a man in asphyxia, hanging from a splintered noose with a mouth full of raw chicken.  Convulsive and hysterical, he stays mostly indecipherable though wildly unpredictable, his pent up screech in Blockbuster devolving to a hemorrhaging squeal by Starlet.  With only five songs, Pure leaves a trail of wreckage in its wake as it leads to their first full length, 1990's Head.  

With the addition of drummer, Mac McNeilly, The Jesus Lizard featured more of a natural groove, Wims’s funk-driven bass lines sounding less like a machined component and the band’s dynamic now a jagged and organic racket.  One Evening more or less establishes the sort of delivery they’ll continue to embrace over the next three subsequent albums, which isn’t to say that it acts as a template, it's just a perfect demonstration of how the elements fall in place: Yow’s throat under constant duress, Denison’s guitar a serrated and searing presence and the Wims/McNeilly combo the band’s deadly impetus. 

The broken and mucousy S.D.B.J., (“Sick… Drunk… Blow… Job…” if you must know), the agonizing noir of My Own Urine, followed by the sinister backwoods loop of If You Had Lips, make Head the equivalent of a bad acid trip, its uneasy and anxiety-ridden disposition carried over into 1991’s Goat.

Goat and 1992’s Liar, basically preach the same gospel, the band’s Austin roots playing more of a roll and Yow assuming a minister like tone in a fucked-up tent revival manner of speaking.  Then Comes Dudley, with its slow pace and hypnotic bass line, almost hesitates to speak its mind before the hook, “That woman’s crazy” its first line, making a relatively deep impression about the character if someone like Yow can make such a claim. 

With Goat, the band seems more refined, or at least like they’re paying more attention to the music.  The short and sweet Mouth Breather features Denison almost playing rock god, as does the Western-clad NubSeasick still carries that spontaneous rage, but doesn’t seem to match Head’s raw ire.  The band gets better, more focused.  Some of their extremes become better incorporated into the music. 

Monkey Trick is perfect: a solid groove, hard snare beat and surf riff so striking it begs for volume.  Goat is at the top of my list mostly because of this song.

Objectively speaking, with the playful rhythm of South Mouth and the offensively over-the-top Lady Shoes, Goat is possibly the peak for The Jesus Lizard, a perfect illustration of their impulsive lunacy and brilliance. 

Liar does go further to prove the band’s worth, keeping the fury alive (Boilermaker), but really putting that guitar at the forefront (Gladiator, Slave Ship).  Denison’s playing grows thicker, more significant, his dissonant chords turning up the heft; relatively tame rock tracks like Puss, (which found the band some chart time thanks to release of this song as a split 7” with Nirvana), and Dancing Naked Ladies leaning more toward the accessible.

But, with cowboy-flavored punk (Rope), syncopated funk (Perk) and a nod toward Sabbath (Zachariah), Liar harnesses the band’s strength, taking the focus off their strangeness.  With 1994’s Down though, The Jesus Lizard seems unsure of where to place their focus, sounding competent but mostly uninspired.

Fly On The Wall plays the same sort of stride as Then Comes Dudley, Sims elevating the rhythm with a more complex bass line.  Mistletoe is more emulative of their past albums, its beat erratic, its bass persistent, Yow nonsensical. 

But, songs like Countless Backs Of Sad Losers and the I Got A Right posturing of Queen For A Day seem lightweight.  Even the sinister tonality of The Associate feels recycled. 

Down sounds as if it was meant to appeal to a broader audience, the alterna-swept radioheads clinging to their new copies of Superunknown then a focal point for the music industry.  It’s not surprising that Down was followed by a major label release, (interestingly titled Shot, maybe as in “only,” or “here is our…”).  As the hardest working bands of the mid-80s were finally getting noticed, it’s not a surprise that The Jesus Lizard would try and get in on some of that overdue attention.  

Still, integrity and identity never seemed an issue with The Jesus Lizard and now they represent an era that sweated blood and ate itself in an attempt to survive. 

It’s possible that parents these days don’t have as much of a disconnect with their progeny from a musical standpoint because their music was stronger, stranger, louder and built out of a work ethic that required legwork, fliers, ‘zines, starving to death and physical networking.  Growing up, something like The Jesus Lizard would’ve been met with disapproving glares from my parents, followed by an immediate depress of the power button and irrational fear for my well-being. 

Now a father myself, I’m unsettled at the prospect of having nothing to fear in terms of my daughter’s listening, convinced that future generations will never come close to producing ONE album with as much vitality, honesty and brutality.  And, yes, I’m generalizing and carrying myself with a degree of superiority, but it’s been twenty years:  Where is your answer to this band?

Pure – 8/10
Head – 9/10
Goat – 10/10
Liar – 9/10
Down – 6/10