Like so many bands spawned in Cleveland’s post-industrial shadows, Prisonshake walks a fine line between — or, more to the point, refuses to recognize the incongruity of melding — old-school rock songwriting and avant-spuzz structure-demolition. As the years have progressed, the decreasingly prolific quartet (which relocated to St. Louis in 1995) has phased out some of its more quarrelsome habits, settling into an altogether galvanizing groove that harks back to the days when “rocking out” was a universal aspiration, not an ironist’s refuge.
The singles collection — actually a box of 7-inch discs reprising Prisonshake’s first four 45s — is a meticulously packaged set, reflecting guitarist/Scat majordomo Robert Griffin’s venturesome design sensibilities. It’s no mere curio, though: the post-punk power balladry of “Deanna” and the caustic “Fairfield Avenue Serenade” seethe with the sort of gut-corroding tension that drives characters in Jim Thompson novels to drink or kill…or possibly both.
In a ballsy move — one not seen since Half Japanese’s 1980 debut — Prisonshake chose to release a full-blown box set as its first “album.” Comprised of one CD, one vinyl record, one cassette and a 7-inch single (with no overlap), I’m Really Fucked Now deluges listeners with about three hours worth of short, sharp songs, ineffectual in-jokes and plenty of fragmented material in between. The CD (most of which is reprised on A Girl Called Yes) introduces a more expansive side — evident on the simmering “By the Side of the Road” — not to mention the flair for post-Replacements melancholia (propelled by a self-negating Doug Enkler vocal) aired on “Bedtime Beats You Senseless.” The vinyl disc remixes several tracks from the singles, while the cassette (aside from Griffin’s gripping “Then She Prayed”) would best be recycled to tape one of the band’s incendiary live shows.
The unexpectedly tender Della Street volunteers love songs, (almost) nothing but love songs, giving Enkler a chance to exhibit his suave side and affording the dauntingly versatile rhythm section of Chris Burgess and Scott Pickering the opportunity to ply their tricks in more challenging contexts. That said, the EP’s most compelling track — a sprawling “Stuck in St. Louis” — reverts to Prisonshake’s improvisatory bar band best.
Produced by Andy Shernoff of the Dictators, The Roaring Third consolidates Griffin and Enkler’s decidedly diffuse approaches masterfully, with the former tangled up in the blues-punk strains of “Carthage Burns!” and “2 Sisters” and the latter wringing out rustic-sounding ballads, like “Always Almost There” and “Cigarette Day,” that could easily provide chart fodder for John Mellencamp if he ever gets around to doing that covers set.
Prior to playing in Prisonshake, Enkler pulled a stint in the Offbeats, a good-natured if lightweight funnypunk quartet that had a considerable local following. Concurrently, Griffin played with Spike in Vain, a harrowing Birthday Party/Flipper-styled quartet whose excursions into barely controlled chaos are well-documented on Disease Is Relative.