Few bands sustained a sense of genuine danger for as long as this formidably malevolent Chicago foursome. Seemingly intent on crafting a soundtrack for society’s collapse — or at least the world’s worst bout of bed spins — the Jesus Lizard ran like a perpetual friction machine, drawing spark after spark from the conflict between the instrumentalists’ tightly wound, coolly forceful approach and frontman David Yow’s utterly blotto psychic sucker punches. The band benefited greatly from its association with Steve Albini, whose brittle, audio vérité recordings are tailor-made to capture — and exacerbate — that tension. More importantly, Yow is gifted with one of the most atonal, animalistic voices to have ever hit the rock stage: even a passing listen proves him to be living testament to the notion that hate is a many-splendored thing.
On its debut (which was recorded as a trio with a drum machine), the Jesus Lizard (which reunited Texas native Yow with a former Scratch Acid bandmate, bassist David Wm. Sims, following the latter’s tenure in Albini’s Rapeman) musters plenty of sound and fury, but only intermittently strikes sheer adrenal gold. When it does — as on a stygian revamp of Neil Sedaka’s “Breakin’ Up Is Hard to Do” — the queasy feeling is hard to shake. Head delves even deeper into the heart of weirdness, with Yow giving voice to ugly but hilarious nightmare imagery like the babble that runs through “If You Had Lips.” The more unhinged his delivery gets, the cooler his bandmates play it, particularly newly arrived drummer Mac McNeilly (ex-Phantom 309, in which he played bass), whose self-possessed demeanor is reminiscent of Charlie Watts at his most implacable. The instrumental “Tight and Shiny” became a concert staple, giving Yow the chance to demonstrate his unique mastery of the testicle solo — a microphone maneuver most performers would never have the (sorry) balls to attempt. (The Head CD includes Pure as a bonus.)
On Goat, the quartet sinks elbow-deep into the bowels of the American nightmare, turning up all sorts of unpleasant parasites that pass unnoticed among us. Yow’s disjointed couplets — at times he sounds like a preacher speaking in tongues — bounce off targets both subtle (“Rodeo in Joliet”) and freakish (the antagonistic “Then Comes Dudley”). Duane Denison no longer wields his guitar like a lawnmower — instead of flying sonic mulch, he comes forth with identifiably blues-based riffing that’s twisted enough to underscore the music’s edge but linear enough to maintain the perception that these really are slices of everyday life.
Liar substantiates its title within the first five seconds of the opener, “Boilermaker,” as Yow blurts “I’m calm now….I’ve calmed down.” The exceptionally violent lurches that mark the album’s songs — driven by Sims’ pulsing bass, which often acts as lead instrument — are made all the more formidable by the control with which they’re orchestrated. Yow, on the other hand…well, let’s just say he’s intent on making his otolaryngologist a wealthy person. The wordless shrieks that punctuate tracks like “Gladiator” and “Slave Ship” hardly seem affected — on the latter, they provide a convincing counterpoint to his rantings of blistered hands, torn-off fingernails and emotional breakdown. The singer has never been more darkly humorous either, as proven by the adrena-waltz “The Art of Self-Defense,” wherein he ponders the plight of a “sad, sad, sad, sad, sad pygmy” on a killing spree.
The Lash EP supplements a pair of studio recordings-including the shuddering “Glamorous,” in which Yow froths about being pursued by “homosexual gangsters,” among other emo-spasms — with four live songs that don’t quite capture the intensity of the Jesus Lizard in concert. Although the performances aren’t bad (other than “Bloody Mary,” they’re not all that great, either), the record has an off-putting sterility.
Although the Jesus Lizard once shunned major label interest so vigorously that they allegedly countered one potential suitor with a demand of a one-record, one-million-dollar contract (which the exec supposedly considered), the band agreed to a one-off deal for the release of Show, a bracing live disc recorded in December ’93 during the CBGB 20th anniversary festival in New York. Experienced on an “on” night-like this one — the quartet musters as much might as any band extant: see the ferocious one-two punch of the speed-crazed “Deaf as a Bat” and “Sea Sick.” With the stage-diving Yow spending as much time flailing in mid-audience as onstage, Denison is left to fill the space with barbed-wire-wrapped Keith Richards-styled riffing (on a cover of the Dicks’ “Wheelchair Epidemic” and “Puss,” previously available on a 1992 single split with Nirvana) and some good’n’greasy slide playing (on “Nub”). Not that Yow cedes his ringmaster role: Between offering dedications to his parents and paeans to his penis, he leaves the crowd in stitches every time.
Down explores a rather more subdued side. Oh sure, Yow still paces between riffs like a trapped animal as he yammers out his tales of emotional incarceration (“Fly on the Wall,” one of three Down songs previewed on Show) and utter contempt for humanity (like the privileged-baiting “Countless Backs of Sad Losers” and the thoroughly misanthropic “50¢”). But the amount of space his bandmates give him blunts the impact noticeably. Denison’s playing is both more florid and more minimal, riddled with sharp, disconnected leads (as on “Mistletoe”) that supplant the claustrophobic riffing of previous releases. Although the songs, when dissected, are just as disquieting as anything the band has ever done, Down is the first Jesus Lizard album that could conceivably serve as background music.
After years of playing hard-to-get, the Liz took a final step off the short pier of indie-label sanctity. Following a stint on the ’95 Lollapalooza, the group consummated its flirtation with major labeldom with Shot. Ending a career-long streak of recordings with Steve Albini, the band called upon Garth Richardson, who imparts a slightly glossier sound that emphasizes Sims’ bass throb. Songs like “Thumbscrews” and “Skull of a German” prove Yow hasn’t lost anything in terms of horror-storytelling, but his stab at “singing” (much in the manner he employed in his Scratch Acid days) is ill-advised.
The mathematically inaccurate Denison/Kimball Trio teams the guitarist with former Laughing Hyenas/Mule drummer Jim Kimball. Together, they craft curiously tension-free improvisations that blend West Coast cool jazz and movie score atmospherics. Kimball’s terpsichorean brushings prop up most of the short pieces on Walls in the City (particularly the snazzy “Walk Away”), since Denison seldom manages to make his note flurries coalesce. Soul Machine is a dramatic improvement. While still emphatically non-rock, the album reflects a willingness to wallow in the pleasures of a swinging groove. As such, pieces like the title track and a version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” succeed in drawing the listener in, rather than eliciting coolly distant admiration.