Formed as a result of the bitter split of B.A.L.L., Gumball allowed singer/guitarist/producer Don Fleming and drummer Jay Spiegel to jettison the calculated-sloppiness shtick and smug trashing of ’60s icons that were that band’s obsessive specialties. Special Kiss, recorded as a trio with new bassist Eric Vermillion, is actually closer in spirit and execution to the tart garage-rock sound of Fleming and Spiegel’s earlier band, Washington DC’s Velvet Monkeys, albeit with a higher quotient of slashing post-no wave guitar. In fact, the album — a locomotive blur of abrasive pop and gnarly guitar psychosis — sounds like a close relative of Sonic Youth’s Goo. (Thurston Moore even plays keyboards on one number.) “You Know,” in particular, recalls the singalong corrosion of Teenage Fanclub, a sense amplified by the appearance of all four Fanclubbers on the track. Having been previewed abroad with the four-song Gumball EP, Special Kiss was followed in the UK by Light Shines Through: three album tracks (one an alternate take) and four non-LP numbers.
To mark time before their full-length Columbia debut and show off their catholic musical taste, Gumball went the covers route on the five-song Wisconsin Hayride. Besides Foetus, Black Flag and Small Faces material, “New Rose” is a frisky carbon of the Damned’s debut single with extra guitar by J Mascis, but the version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Awakening” is a messy, ill-advised gag, a cheap shot at ’70s fusion without chops or wit.
Super Tasty is exactly that, a snappy commercial effort produced by Butch Vig with the polished hum’n’snarl of classic ’70s pop-punk clatter by Cheap Trick and Blue Öyster Cult. Gumball’s attack is, if anything, a little too slick for the times, but Fleming’s boyish tenor and the chrome-torpedo riffing guards the manifest kick of discontent in “The Damage Done” (neatly disguised with an exuberant intro of guitar-drums clamor and bright, wheezing harmonica) and the bittersweet ballad corn of “Marilyn.” A bit more bite would not have gone amiss; much of Fleming’s lyric irony sounds more weary than wired. Still, Super Tasty is a buzzin’ good time, if only for its wonderfully retro sonic glitz.
Revolution on Ice… makes Fleming’s cynicism more explicit. The title and cartoon artwork are a combined blast at the corporate co-opting of the alternative-rock revolt; songs like “Revolution on the Rocks” and “Nights on Fire” bristle with embittered surrender and accusatory rage. The album’s open-wound air, however, makes it Gumball’s strongest effort to date. Less superficial than Super Tasty, Revolution on Ice… crackles with a dark, seductive intensity, heightened by the extra guitars and keyboards of new recruit Malcolm Riviera (an old Velvet Monkeys crony). The BÖC connection is reinforced by a letter-perfect rendition of “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot,” complete with guest vocals by that band’s original drummer, Albert Bouchard (more recently of the Brain Surgeons).
Inaugurating his Instant Mayhem label in early ’96, Fleming released Because Tomorrow Comes: two tracks of solo “Donaldtronic” meanderings on guitar, theremin, mellotron, fuzz bass, keyboards and tapes that sound like backstage tuneup time at the Fillmore East, circa 1968, and the title song, an acoustic folk-pop strummer with a Moody Blues undercurrent.