The U-Men were not a grunge band. Well, they were almost a grunge band, I suppose. That assumes that one is talking about what grunge was as a very obscure sub-genre back in 1988 or so. By then, the band were near the end of their time on this earth as a functional unit and so not able to capitalize entirely on that catch-all genre label for noise-y bands rocketing out of the Pacific Northwest. But the racket that they made bridged the sound of Homestead Records, a label that put out some of their early stuff, with that of the up-and-coming Sub Pop label, as one listen to this essential new U-Men collection from the folks at Sub Pop proves. One listen should also convince anyone that this band was on another plane altogether.
The U-Men -- Tom Price (guitar), John Bigley (vocals), Charlie Ryan (drums), Jim Tillman (bass, 1982-1986), and Robin Buchan (bass, 1980-1982), Tom Hazelmyer (bass, 1987), and Tony Ransome (bass, 1987-1989) -- produced an unholy din that, in retrospect, sits somewhere between the oeuvres of The Cramps and Butthole Surfers perhaps more than it does, say, those of Mudhoney and Soundgarden, for instance. What's here -- tracks like the hypnotic "Mystery Pain", and the jagged "Cow Rock", for example -- meld the warped take on the Fifties that The Cramps perfected with something else, something unhinged (similarities to the Butthole Surfers abound here), and something downright dangerous (like the Big Black-isms of "Dig a Hole"). U-Men collects everything this lot recorded in the studio so one can trace a sort of progression through this material. And if lots of this sounds uniquely fully-formed from the start -- the silly riff-making of "Last Lunch", or the surges of "Gila", for instance -- a listener can at least detect this band's attempts to coral themselves as they made music that was largely unique and unlike nearly everything else a college rock-listener was offered back in 1987 or so.
This is gloriously ugly stuff in spots ("Pay The Bubba"), and yet nearly fun elsewhere ("U-Men Stomp"), and a listener can wade through this massive 3-LP set from Sub Pop in almost any order as the result will be the same. Lots and lots of this is punchy and concise, with occasional detours into more varied stabs at a Birthday Party-kind of thing ("Papa Doesn't Love His Children Anymore"), or attempts that suggest West Coast variations on Gibby's Texas-based sonic subversions ("Too Good To Be Food"). Sure, there are moments here that explicitly foreshadow what genuine grunge bands like Mudhoney and Tad would do later with numbers like "2 X 4" and "Juice Party", 2 numbers that echo those acts, respectively, but there's loads more here that is simply impossible to pigeonhole in terms of genre. This is so outside the norm for the era that even fans of Nick Cave back then would have been pummeled by the force of The U-Men, while Sonic Youth disciples would have likely shunned the troglodytic nature of lots of this. And for era-survivors such as myself, a guy who probably only heard a handful of these cuts (at best) back in the day, this new 3-LP set from U-Men on Sub Pop re-affirms how rich the scene was in the Northwest before the music press reduced the grunge movement down to the barest of essentials in 1989.
Which makes it ironic that the U-Men didn't last as, surely, their monolithic power-slab-approach should have served them better in that first flourishing of grunge from 1987, say, up until Nevermind in 1991. One can imagine an alternate history where U-Men, not Tad, got more press, for example. And it is shocking now how music this ferocious slipped so easily past most critics at the time. Without the artistry of noise-niks Sonic Youth, and lacking the poetry of Nick Cave and his crew, the proto-tunes of U-Men likely seemed musically backwards, and it would take years for critics to catch up and see the glory and power on display here in this band's output. Hopefully, U-Men from Sub Pop will right the wrongs of musical history by making this band's entire recorded output from a whole slew of labels available in one convenient set.
U-Men by U-Men is out on Friday via Sub Pop.
[Photos: Cam Garrett]