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Old 08-08-2009, 01:37 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Join Date: Jun 2009
Location: pollen & mold
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Default Bitch Magnet - Umber + Star Booty (1989)

Released by Communion Records

Track list:

1. Motor
2. Navajo Ace
3. Clay
4. Joan of Arc
5. Douglas Leader
6. Goat-Legged Country God
7. Big Pining
8. Joyless Street
9. Punch and Judy
10. Americruiser
*tracks 1-10 are the Umber LP
11. Carnation
12. C Word
13. Sea of Perls
14. Hatpins
15. Knucklehead
16. Circle K
17. Polio
18. Canteloupe
*tracks 11-18 are the Star Booty EP

Umber lineup:
Sooyuong Park – vocals, bass
John Fine – guitar
David Galt - guitar
Orestes Delatorre – drums

Star Booty lineup:
Sooyoung Park – vocals, bass
John Fine – guitar
Orestes Delatorre – drums

I firmly believe that if this band had not named themselves Bitch Magnet that they would have been far more than just a notch on the timeline of underground rock music from the late 80s/early 90s. But that’s what they are and their name will forever be more of a focal point (more like a passing glance point) than the music that they made. And that’s too bad because they made the most interesting, accessible music of all the early branches of the Squirrel Bait family tree.

Indeed, it is cheating a bit for me to include this album because not one of the musicians that played on it played in Squirrel Bait. However the connection is strong because our hero, David Grubbs, chose to join this band during the Bastro era. He was a bona-fide member of the band on their later releases and played with them on tour before ultimately staying with Bastro and moving on with them to form Gastr Del Sol (review coming soon!). So that’s why they get lumped in with Bastro and it’s why I went from Squirrel Bait straight to both Bastro and Bitch Magnet. The two bands were active simultaneously and were connected by Mr. Grubbs. Squirrel Bait is the roots of the tree and these two are the big, chunky trunk at the base.

Beyond that connection I will stop hyping Grubbs because he is not the star of the show. That is Sooyoung Park . He and the other two united while at Oberlin College and while there recorded their Star Booty EP which was engineered by Mr. Steve Albini. He’s quiet about it but I will always wonder what kind of influence Albini had on all of these bands. Like Bastro, Bitch Magnet has more than a slight resemblance to Albini’s own bands. Coincidence? Or was there a tangible connection between smart, casually-dressed punk rockers across America in the late-80s? I like to think so. But maybe it’s just that Big Black was so goddamn good. In any case, Bitch Magnet is Sooyoung Park’s baby and he nurtured it well.

I’ve talked about the likes of Big Black and Slint enough (too much) already. But in reference to these Bitch Magnet recordings, I am going to mention another band: Smashing Pumpkins. That’s right, these songs often remind me of Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins. It’s mainly in the melodic, anthemic, heavy guitar style of Jon Fine as well as the bluesy bass lines. I’m willing to bet that young Billy Corgan had at least one Bitch Magnet tape at some point.

They are the last 8 tracks on the combined release, but Star Booty came before Umber chronologically so I’ll begin there.

‘Carnation’ starts the EP on a controlled, energetic note – textbook post-hardcore with aggressive but melodic vocals and some spacey guitar noodling thrown in at the end. This leads directly into ‘C Word’ where Park shows off another side of his singing; bored and depressive but still keeping up the pace. ‘Sea of Pearls’ crashes in with a chuggy riff that provides a melody for Park to sing over. Throughout this album, he changes up his style quite a bit. Here he sounds like an upbeat slacker hinting at his future work in Seam. ‘Hatpins’ goes in a different direction altogether. The tempo goes up to hardcore levels and the vocals are spoken and shouted. Less than two minutes later the next song starts. ‘Knucklehead’ has an intricate intro with a pretty guitar melody of the type that I believe inspired Billy Corgan. But the drums kick in hard and the tempo rises as Park blurts out lyrics in a repetitive 70s-era punk kind of way. Over and over he spits “I said I’m sorry” which turns briefly into a group-shout at the end. A nice touch. Next up is ‘Circle K’ where Park is again depressed and monotone. The music is droney and seems more like a jam session than a song. Maybe Park was manic-depressive because the next song ‘Polio’ enters with a tight, energetic and groovy vibe and stays that way. The vocals again start spoken and then go wild and even angry. What’s wrong, Sooyoung? He’s even more pissed on the final song, ‘Canteloupe’, which is as noisy as Bitch Magnet gets, and he simply belts out lyrics from as deep in his diaphragm as he can.

Not a lot of time passed between Star Booty and Umber but enough for them to add a guitarist and develop their sound a bit. So, what is it with this band’s name? Obviously the name Bitch Magnet is an ironic gesture for a band of experimental punk rock nerds but their music is not ironic; they come across as very serious in their sound. However, the first song on Umber, ‘Motor’, challenges their seriousness as they sound like an indie-punk version of Motorhead. The music is solid and moderately heavy and Park settles into a controlled spoken/sung growl. It’s mostly in the lyrics here that he reminds me of Lemmy:

My motor / feel it burn / my engine / you’ll hear it sing
Cause I’m the jack and I’m the king

‘Clay’ is Bitch Magnet gone epic; Slow intro that builds, loud-quiet-loud dynamic, guitar and bass flourishes breaking up the quiet parts. Park lets loose here – not with screams but general confidence. Gone is the insecure J Mascis quality from his voice. He just speaks, sings, growls, and mumbles as needed.

Umber is more of a rock album than Star Booty and perhaps more than any in the Squirrel Bait family. Aside from the buttrock lyrics in ‘Motor’ we also have several songs that are peppered with southern rock. ‘Joan of Arc’ is led by a groovy metal riff and Park tries more growling and yelping. ‘Goat-Legged Country God’ goes that way even further with its riffing. But it reels the rock-n-roll back in with a wall of feedback borrowed from Sonic Youth and Park’s humbly spoken words. ‘Joyless Street’ is another very lively affair with guitar work that I think may have been stolen by Billy Corgan. It is bluesy, down-tuned guitar rock washed with feedback. ‘Punch and Judy’ sounds so much like later Shellac to me that it makes me again wonder where the lines are drawn between Steve Albini and everybody else’s music. More lush guitar work appears on the final track, ‘Americruiser’, which is a great example of why Slint is not more special than Bitch Magnet.

Overall this is one hell of an enjoyable listen. Forget about all the indie-shit, this album is good for the bedroom intellectual and the summertime road-tripper alike.

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