Two bass strings, three guitar strings, two fuzzboxes, a three-piece drum kit, an unwieldy name, rudimentary production of songs about peaches, stray cats, boll weevils and lumps, a cover of the MC5’s ineffectual call to arms, “Kick Out the Jams,” and a carefree goofball attitude — that sure sounds like the recipe for a million-selling album, doesn’t it? Not merely Seattle’s most improbable success story of ’95, this unprepossessing novelty trio scored one of the whole decade’s leftest-field home runs. Singer/demi-bassist Chris Ballew (a former Beck sideman and Boston resident who acknowledges the instrumental inspiration of Morphine’s similarly equipped Mark Sandman, a onetime roommate with whom he has an intermittent band called Supergroup), half-guitarist Dave Dederer and ex-Love Battery drummer Jason Finn could not be more intrinsically indie if they had the PopLlama logo tattooed on their foreheads. Nonetheless, the college-kid mainstream welcomed their debut album like the local pot dealer. So exactly where does that leave “We Are Not Going to Make It,” a number borrowed from a defunct Brooklyn band called Traci Lords’ Ex-Lovers? A rewrite of the Monkees’ theme, the song predicts failure, explaining “There’s a million better bands with a million better songs/Drummers who can drum/Singers who can sing.” Is it prescient irony? A preemptive credibility hedge in the event of major-label failure? A fib?
Grasping the essence of pop singledom, the Presidents make their songs chewy, stupid, disposable, diverse and imaginative. Like the winsome “little bag o’bones” loved and hated in the leadoff “Kitty,” The Presidents of the United States of America is instantly ingratiating and massively irritating, the kind of record you love for a week and then trade in for one you can actually live with. A mixture of the Spin Doctors’ grub funk and They Might Be Giants’ dada whimsicality stripped down and rushed along as simply as possible, the album is full of catchy tunes and smart, loopy nonsense (sprinkled with such surprises as the John Lennon paraphrase that ends “Feather Pluckn”) perfect for rowdy singalongs.