Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Axe To Grind: A Look At A Bunch Of Tad Reissues From Sub Pop Records

There's absolutely no way I could write about grunge legends Tad without referencing that quip. At some point in the early days of the boom of this sort of music (1989-ish), I read an interview with Tad Doyle and the members of Tad in a British music mag (NME or Melody Maker) in which Doyle described the musical mission of Tad as a search for the frequency which causes people to shit their pants. Even typing it now I'm laughing at the absurdity of the quote that I'm badly paraphrasing.

That Tad Doyle was large, a "Behemoth", to quote one of their early songs, made me like them more; as a fellow member of the Big Men's Club, I'm naturally partial to fat guys trying to rawk. And believe me, Tad RAWKED. And nowhere more than on their first few releases, now reissued by Sub Pop. These records are the absolute ground zero of the whole grunge thing as far as I'm concerned. Mudhoney had far too much wit and panache, Nirvana too much angst, and Soundgarden too many Beatles-y hooks. Folks, Tad was the ultimate grunge band, the sludge-y butter through which the alt-rock knife of those other bands sliced.

Tad -- Tad Doyle on vocals and guitar, Kurt Danielson on bass, Steve Wied on drums, and Gary Thorstensen on guitar -- burst forth in a calamitous wall of noise with God's Balls in 1989. Their first full-length release was perhaps their purest offering. Trying to write about music this fundamentally backward is to defy logic; smashing your keyboard with a mallet would be a more appropriate way to get across the nature of this stuff. If "Sex God Missy" is the big hit single, the attempt to at least marginally reach out to normal people, the rest of this slab is bludgeoning proto-metal that makes early Sabbath look like Miles Davis. Simple to the point of being ridiculous, this is an audio monster truck rally. I mean, is there any point in even writing a bunch of prose to differentiate "Satan's Chainsaw" from "Cyanide Bath"? And all that said, this is bracing, bold stuff that still -- some 3 decades later -- manages to send bursts of pleasure through the solar plexus with all the force of a punch. Has anything been this heavy? If Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom" was real, it would be "Pork Chop" or a similar number from this debut.

In what makes absolutely perfect sense now as it did then, Tad hooked up with producer Steve Albini for 1990's Salt Lick EP. The release was, thankfully, not so much a progression as it was a refinement of the Tad cudgel. Listened to now, tracks on this one like "Axe to Grind" and "High on the Hog" compare favorably to those of Albini's own Big Black. Bludgeoning but interesting, the sound here is an all-out assault on the senses and still more menacing and liberating in some ways than most music made since then. The glorious "Potlatch" deserves special praise for somehow sounding like a jetliner landing on top of a shoegaze concert. It is punishing music and the sort of thing that only functions thanks to the players actually knowing some chords. Without those hooks, this would be the Shaggs-inspired mix-tape of a bunch of cavemen and I can offer no higher praise than that for anything from the first wonderful, reductionist wave of grunge.

By the time that Tad recorded what is undoubtedly their masterpiece, 1991's 8-Way Santa, the fellows had wisely sought out producer Butch Vig due to his involvement with band heroes Killdozer. Doing so enabled Tad to offer up what is surely the cleanest sounding record they ever produced. If things here are crisp, the material is still a mallet to the head: "Hedge Hog" a lumbering beast of a tune that lives up to that title, "Trash Truck" the sort of lean stoner rocker that bands like Fu Manchu would later attempt with a bit less menace, and so on. Overall, the songs are certainly more straightforward, less of that gloriously lugubrious mass of the earlier stuff, and, for the most part at least, things work. If "Jack" sounds a bit too much like Primus for my taste, then the slab-rock of "Jinx" ensures that listeners of Tad were not missing out on what they purchased this record for. At its best, 8-Way Santa seems as significant a distillation of the grunge ideal as Nirvana's Nevermind from the same year. And listening to this now, one can recall a time when one could list on one hand the "real" grunge bands in this world: Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Tad.

The fine folks at Sub Pop have done an impressive feat with this set of reissues. All told, there are some 14 rare or unreleased tunes spread over these 3 releases. Of those the clear highlights are the corrosive "Tuna Car", the raw "Damaged" from a split-single with D.C.'s legendary Pussy Galore, and the grimy "Pig Iron". Admittedly, cuts like those -- the blistering ones -- are more essential than any demo version but those are useful too as they provide a fuller picture of the (thankfully) limited progression of this band during its time on Sub Pop.

It might be too soon to begin a critical re-assessment of grunge -- (or too late?) -- and the world probably doesn't need a long Uncut-mag-style think-piece on this quartet. Tad would have hated that idea back in 1990. But it's worth writing a bit more in summary of this crew's impressive early burst of material. Remarkably, at least in this run on Sub Pop featuring the original line-up of the group, Tad did one thing perfectly. At least until Nirvana stormed the charts with Butch Vig fiddling the knobs, no other grunge band had so successfully conveyed the power and punch of this music. And, as I probably already wrote, other acts in the scene added to the genre's basic template, but by hewing so closely to the style's blueprint, Tad managed to -- maybe for a moment or two, for sure -- be the perfect grunge band. Pummeling, bracing, radically uncool music, the output of Tad from 1988 to 1991 remains the sort of thing that few could possibly even attempt now. Rock in its purest form, the tunes of Tad are superb even now nearly 3 decades later.

God's Balls (1989), Salt Lick (1990), and 8-Way Santa (1991) are being reissued on a variety of formats this Friday from Sub Pop.