Musician, writer, and record producer Lenny Kaye has been a guitarist for poet-rocker Patti Smith since her band’s inception more than 40 years ago. He has worked in the studio with such artists as Suzanne Vega, Jim Carroll, Soul Asylum, Kristen Hersh, and Allen Ginsberg, as well as his own solo muse. His seminal anthology of ’60s garage-rock, Nuggets, has long been regarded as defining a genre. You can visit him online here.
There is staying power in the thick ooze of sludge, the enveloping immersion of igneous riff and rhythm, and it pays (not well, but enough to keep going) to have a sense of humor. Thirty years, the half-life of rock & roll, and the Melvins come full circle. Tres Cabrones reunites the fright-wig of Buzz Osborne with original drummer Mike Dillard, Dale Crover (his replacement 29 of those earth orbits ago) moving over to bass… and, no surprise, it sounds like the eternal Melvins of yore and your. On the one hand, it’s because the formula is simple: unison guitar line emphasized by rumbling bass ‘n’ drum, chordal distortion and an askew lyric. But it’s also because the group confounds expectation, not getting caught up in the shifting orthodoxies of alterna-contraries.
The Melvins draw on roots as divergent as Queen and Roxy Music (their take on “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” on this year’s covers album Everybody Loves Sausages reveals a glam-love they proceed to deconstruct with an affectionate vengeance) and Portland’s legendary Wipers, even as they genuflect to the unholy trinity of Swans/Flipper/Black Flag, with a good dose of Jello Biafra tossed in. Their outsized influence on the Northwest scene, their flirtation with the mainstream as a tributary result (three albums on Atlantic in the mid ’90s), and their subsequent cliff-diving as they collaborated and experimented across the millennial divide — the double drummers of 2006’s (A) Senile Animal, the band Fantomas with Mike Patton, the most recent Melvins Lite with Mr. Bungle’s Trevor Dunn that took them to 51 states in 51 days (DC included) — have given them a lifeline ever worth renewing.
Tres Cabrones ups the ante, even at an astonishing 19+ albums in, taking on the challenge of how to better yourself after such a prolific output, as accessible as anything the Melvins have ever done, as demented as they can be. While there are elements that confirm the group as progenitors of stoner rock — the slooowed tempos amid layers of tubular overload and wrenching strings, a la “I Told You I Was Crazy” — they are as much stoners of prog-rock. There’s a little reverse-engineering Metallica in “Stump Farmer,” a little “Ballroom Blitz” in “Stick ‘em Up Bitch,” a lot of old-fashioned farm implements in the tractor pull of “American Cow” and “Dogs and Cattle Prods.” Their absurdist sensibilities allow for interludes of “99 Bottles of Beer” and “In the Army Now,” as well as the hoedown of “Tie My Pecker to a Tree.” If they try not to be taken too seriously, it only makes the descent into the harder-core elements of their effluvia more overpowering and ennobling.
Take, for instance, “Psychodelic Haze,” with its sway-bar stings and relentless downbeat verging on the head-thump. Or “City Dump,” with its squalling pot-pourri of guitars fighting to rise from the blur of the track. Buzzo hasn’t really gotten credit for the amount of mayhem he can wring from his instrument, and the rhythm section matches him pummel-for-pummel. The virtues proffered here are not ground-breaking; if anything, the album stays within the accepted Big Muff textures of the ’70s, appropriate for a band that is revisiting its formative younger self in 1983, unwilling to give in to nostalgia and continuing as if Dillard hadn’t left the group.
What is apparent is that the Melvins haven’t lost any of their outsider flair, even as they’ve become an unlikely touchstone for longevity and cage-match commitment. Next time they come to town I’ll always be there.