Monday, November 16, 2009

The Jesus Lizard Reissues

The major labels who treat album reissues as just another way to cheaply recycle and profitably repackage an artist's most celebrated work could learn a thing or two from Touch and Go. Quite simply, the indie label's Jesus Lizard reissues are about as flawless as such releases can be. Though the timing of the label's campaign might make cynics take notice - the original releases aren't out of print, the remastering job by Steve Albini and Bob Weston isn't really noticeable and these reissues come at a time when a reformed Jesus Lizard is performing live to receptive audiences - the care and attention paid to these reissues more than offset any reservations listeners might have about shelling out for the albums. For those not familiar with the Jesus Lizard, the reissues will serve as an ideal overview of the band, while hardcore fans who know there is no better insult than calling someone a mouth-breather should be satisfied with the bonus tracks and the releases' overall aesthetic.

Enough clever metaphors have been used over the years to describe Goat and Liar to make additional commentary redundant. It's enough to say that both albums contain the band's blend of deranged vocals and scathing, stop-start arrangements at their most precise and tense; filled with ugly sentiments and even uglier characters, these albums remain essential pieces of 1990s indie rock. Only a fool would bother to argue that one album is significantly stronger than the other. If this reissue series suggests anything, it's that the records that bookended Goat and Liar deserve a bit more attention. Very few sane fans will argue that the Pure EP, Head and final Touch and Go album Down belong in the same class as Goat and Liar; still, these less-celebrated releases have aged remarkably well and offer traces of the sound the band perfected on those two classic albums. Though Yow's vocals don't quite have the maniacal frenzy of tracks like "Boilermaker," "Seasick," "Karpis" or "Rope" and the EP sometimes exposes a tentative vocalist, the singer's guttural howls and strangled cries on "Bloody Mary," "Starlet" and "Killer McHann" are the stuff of loony bins and state penitentiaries and hint at the unhinged and uncontrolled vocal spasms Yow would employ throughout Goat and Liar.

In contrast the band's taut and sharp arrangements in many ways were solidified early on; starting with Head and continuing through Down, the three-man wrecking crew of David Wm. Sims, Mac McNeilly and Duane Denison delivered music free of frills, extraneous notes or other needless diversions. Of course, the most focused and violently concise songs are found on Goat and Liar, but early songs like "Good Thing," "Waxeater" and "One Evening" all bear the trio's machine-like efficiency. Select tracks from the erratic Down - with its relatively audible vocals and somewhat polished sound, it's arguably the band's most straightforward record - likewise feature the trio's propulsive rhythms and textures. The contrast between Yow's meandering vocals and the band's exact instrumentals still sounds jarring and disorienting.

If there are any complaints to be made, it's that each disc includes a scant number of bonus tracks and that a complete live show might have been preferable to the few live songs captured here. Yet these drawbacks are minor and forgivable. Yow sings like an untreated schizophrenic on live versions of "Bloody Mary," "Killer McHann," "Seasick," "Lady Shoes" and "Monkey Trick;" perfunctory demos of "Dancing Naked Ladies," "Gladiator" and "Boilermaker" are nevertheless intriguing and Down is rounded out with four tracks that would have fit in nicely on that album, particularly "Glamorous" and "Deaf as a Bat." Each reissue is nattily packaged with vintage photos, reproductions of posters, ticket stubs and other miscellany and anecdotes and ramblings from Yow, McNeilly and Denison. Even the requisite mythologizing essays are worth reading, even if the authors' somewhat-fawning superlatives stop just short of arguing that the band could turn shit to gold.

Ultimately, what we're left with is a heavyweight band whose records now get to take the victory lap they were never afforded in the '90s, at least commercially. Goat and Liar still stand as the band's finest works, but for those interested in diving into the aggression and depravity of these songs, either for the first time or once again, all of these reissued albums are required listening.


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