With Kurt Bloch providing the kicky pop songs and formidable rock’n’roll guitar power, Seattle’s Fastbacks — formed in 1979 and, like many bands of that time and place, able to claim future Guns n’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan as its onetime drummer — made irregular contributions to the world of recorded music throughout the ’80s, turning up on numerous compilations and occasionally issuing records of its own. Always good and never trendy, the band is a beloved and reliable fixture in a city that has seen lots of spectacular rises and falls.
Guitarist Lulu Gargiulo and bassist Kim Warnick play hit-and-miss with the melodies on the casually unpretentious …and His Orchestra, but everyone winds up sharing a fine time anyway. (For reasons too frightening to contemplate, Bloch takes no part in the band’s vocal exercises.) Besides Bloch’s charming pop-rock ditties, drummer Richard Stuverud chips in with one number, and the group does an impressive if incongruous cover of Sweet’s “Set Me Free.” The CD of …and His Orchestra also appends the nine songs from Play Five of Their Favorites and Every Day Is Saturday. The contents of those 12-inch EPs, plus a three-song single, were also separately compiled in England as Never Fails, Never Works. Bike-Toy-Clock-Gift, a cassette-only concert album, was later rereleased in Germany as In America, Live in Seattle 1988.
Recorded as a trio of Bloch (who by then had joined the Young Fresh Fellows and was living a double-band life, not counting Sick Man of Europe, a Cheap Trick cover group with Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman), Warnick and new drummer Nate Johnson (moonlighting from Flop), Very, Very Powerful Motor gives Bloch’s pop-rooted songs rocking arrangements that occasionally overwhelm them. In her rougher vocal moments, Warnick sounds like a more melodically astute Joan Jett. Although she sat out this record, Gargiulo nonetheless puts in several supporting vocal appearances. Cool cover: the Pointed Sticks’ “Apologies.”
The Question Is No. is an anthology of fourteen songs drawn from various singles, compilations and unreleased sessions between 1980 and 1992. Drummers come and go (Stuverud, Johnson, McKagan, Rusty Willoughby, who is actually the guitarist of Flop, even Bloch in a pinch) as the front line roars along in a hyperactive mess of sloppy punk-pop spunk dedicated only to getting from one end to the other of Bloch’s songs. Highlights: “Everything I Don’t Need” (a different version than the one on the Very, Very Powerful Motor CD), “Impatience,” “I Never Knew,” “Don’t Eat That It’s Poison” and the instrumental “Breakup Theme.” Strict melodic adherence is out of the question, but so is arrogance, preciousness or self-importance. The vintage band pix are also excellent.
With Gargiulo back to full-time membership and Willoughby pounding the traps, Zücker contains the band’s least punky pop, some of it downright wimpy. While Bloch works overtime on his fretwork, Warnick and Gargiulo singly and collectively manage the best-ever Fastbacks singing — none of which alters the group’s underlying lack of gravity. And the songs are good, too, especially “Gone to the Moon,” the new wavy “Never Heard of Him,” the galloping instrumental “Bill Challenger,” the harmonized hardness of “Parts,” “Kind of Game” — hell, they’re all good, even the cover of the Bee Gees’ 1967 “Please Read Me.” (The vintage picture of Rusty is also worth pulling over to the side of the road for.)
Answer the Phone, Dummy mines the same basic vein as Zücker with another sturdy set of Bloch tunes (pick hit: “On the Wall”) that are surprising only in their reflective seriousness. The unrestrained energy with which “I Found the Star” delivers its unsettling lyric (“I’ve not done anything at all since I last saw you/And I haven’t had a thing to eat for a day or two/I found the star that led me to the planet where you are”) belies the unsteady personality the song reveals. Ditto the merry-sounding “I’m Cold”: “And I’m bored of everything in front of me/I’m cold, I’m home, I’m all alone/I feel worse than I’ve ever known.” In the folk-rocky “Meet the Author,” Bloch wonders how much better things would be “if we didn’t have to sleep” and “if nothing was pretty.” Between the ganged-up female vocals and the raggedy, surging electric sound, the Fastbacks here resemble a looser-limbed Breeders. Besides such guests as Kim Shattuck of the Muffs, the drummer roster numbers six, with revolving percussionists on loan from Mudhoney, Love Battery, the Posies and Flop. (It seems as if a permanent drum hire would totally queer the Fastbacks’ dynamic.) Alas, no vintage pictures.