Of far more profound cultural relevance to semioticians and hometown pals than open-eared music fans outside Chicago, conceptual super-poseurs Urge Overkill never let a serious or original musical thought get in the way of a flashy uniform, a swinging medallion, a styling hairdcut or other tropes of their camp-hip-cred ’70s crud-rock pretensions. Though devoted to being one of the best-looking bands around, the trio rarely showed more than passing concern for making records that sound like anything. Disinclined to do a lot more than occasionally simulate relevant archetypes, Urge was all fantasy and spin: a repeated promise that never delivered the goods. The band did get appreciably better at its studio game over the years — especially after the Geffen-coincident hookup with Philadelphia’s no-nonsense Butcher Brothers (Joe and Phil Nicolo, better known as hip-hop producers) — but the records’ paucity of content left even the band’s most seemingly ambitious efforts sounding weak-willed and trivial.
Following a premature Steve Albini-engineered-and-issued EP (he had a label called Ruthless before Eazy-E), National “Nash” Kato (vocals, guitar; real name Nathan Katruud), Eddie “King” Roeser (vocals, bass, later guitar) and drummer Jack Watt (“The Jaguar”) cut the awful-sounding Jesus Urge Superstar with Albini; the murk of thick mid-tempo guitar rock does nothing to prove the existence of songs, much less any audible trace of junk-culture devotion. Lacking an audio personality, the band attaches promising titles (“Dump Dump Dump,” “God Flintstone,” “The Polaroid Doll”) to shapeless, styleless tossoffs and leaves it at that.
Butch Vig’s production of Americruiser (the CD of which includes the first LP and a cover of “Wichita Lineman” from a single) cleans the sound up enough to reveal the thin strings, clunky tempos and weak hooks holding the songs together. Sort of tuneful roots-punk (roughed-up Replacements minus the Stones impulse), the brief album sets out with the band’s best idea yet (“Ticket to LA”) — and then fails to catch the plane it’s on. Clunky, unkempt and focused with all the accuracy of a drunk waving a shotgun, Americruiser would be nothing if not for its deluxe furnishings.
With drummer Blackie Onassis (Johnny Rowan) entering the picture, The SuperSonic Storybook throws even choppier rhythms into a poppier, more streamlined attack; for the first time, both the arrangements and the vocals seem premeditated. The self-production is competent if a bit woolly in spots; the song titles (including a straight-faced tribute to the new guy, “[Today Is] Blackie’s Birthday”) still read better than the tunes sound. “Henhough: The Greatest Story Ever Told” pushes the cooler-than-you envelope with a twangy but ponderous frontier orphans ballad; a straight, melodramatic rendition of Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” typifies the band’s bone-dry sense of wit, which adds nothing to the original except the certainty that the parodic gesture is genius enough.
Following that same line of reasoning, the Stull EP begins with a shmeary, overbearing and irony-drenched rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” that proved to be a charm for the group several years later when it fit in with the similarly smarmy obsessions of Quentin Tarantino, who folded it into Pulp Fiction, from where it become a breakout hit of sorts. Otherwise, the bright-sounding five-song batch (co-produced by Kramer) is most notable for the band’s raging punk cover of the impossibly obscure “Stitches in My Head” (from a 1977 single by New York’s Alan Milman Sect) and the rambling “Goodbye to Guyville,” whose titular argot for the Chicago indie-rock scene was appropriated by Liz Phair for the name of her first album.
Successfully launched from Stull‘s stabilizing orbit, Saturation leads Urge Overkill into the real world, with more credible songs than they’ve ever seen in one place and a distinctive mainstream rock sound that doesn’t simply force its cool down your throat. With Kato’s poised whiskey baritone — Gregg Allman meets Rob Tyner — leading the charge, “Sister Havana,” “Positive Bleeding” and “Bottle of Fur” strap together memorable hard-rock melodies and self-conscious style footnotes to Kiss, T. Rex, the Cars and others. Even on the lesser songs, the Butcher Brothers hammer the riff-at-the-ready trio into concise, taut shapes, keeping numbers rolling along with solid centers and brassy surfaces. Still too arch and inconsistent for full-scale appreciation (“Erica Kane” is another great title wasted on a nothing song), Saturation is the first Urge album that isn’t simply an embarrassment.
After that relative pinnacle, Urge took a calmer approach — more power pop than flaming rock — on Exit the Dragon, letting the Butchers soften the edges and trim away the gloss for a warm’n’fuzzy tube distortion frig. Exchanging obvious highlights for a not-quite-adequate layer of songwriting stability, the trio gets by — barely — through the elevated skill of its diverse presentation. The Lemonheads-like custard is sprinkled with sonic references to the Cars, Sweet, Stones, Bowie and Replacements, which tart up commendable songs like “The Break,” “Need Some Air,” “Take Me,” “And You’ll Say” and the strenuously restrained “Somebody Else’s Body.” Otherwise, Exit the Dragon — ending ignominiously with the absurd and ineffectual nine-minute epic, “Digital Black Epilogue” — drags along through various permutations of flat, tired, bland and weak.