Graded on a Curve:
The Melvins, Everybody Loves Sausages

The Melvins’ latest release Everybody Loves Sausages is an all-covers album that’s loaded with guest spots, but it thankfully lacks the self-congratulatory aura of similarly-themed veteran projects. Instead, it’s a fun, modestly scaled ride that also provides an enlightening look into the group’s outsized personality.

The Melvins have just announced a 30th anniversary tour, and that’s a fitting endeavor for a band I’m guessing few people thought were likely to survive for this long. And even if a handful of folks might’ve went out on a limb and predicted they’d still be in the game after three decades of doing it their own way, it would’ve been much harder to convincingly prognosticate that the Melvins would still be possessive of so much relevance at such a late date.

And the fact that the group have proven so influential upon the nexus of Sludge, Doom, and Stoner metal can perhaps cloud the reality of just how unusual of a band the Melvins once were. While their initial forays into recording could be traced back to the precedent of early Black Sabbath and later-period Black Flag, it’s important to note just how different a record like 1992’s Melvins (aka Lysol) sounded at the time of its release.

Reliably mentioned as a major antecedent for the Grunge explosion, the Melvins’ music never really fit in with that style, though it’s always been pretty clear how the band’s extension of hard-rock sensibilities did influence that movement.

And these days a person can blow a week’s pay on records shaped by guitarist Buzz Osborne, drummer Dale Crover, and their long string of bassists and still barely scratch the surface of the group’s impact, but again, in the early ‘90s there was almost nobody else around that sounded like these guys.

They were surely heavy, but the Melvins stood out largely through a combination of slowness and density that was deepened by flashes of restless experimentation. However, their status as groundbreakers wasn’t really reflected by any sort of articulated avant-garde agenda, even though they have collaborated with a considerable number of musicians from that sphere over the years.

Unsurprisingly, the Melvins were championed by the ‘90s noise rock brigade while also embraced by the same era’s defiantly indie crowd (K Records played a part in their younger days), and were looked up to by many as survivors of an ‘80’s punk scene they never really fit into. And they just kept on trucking along as thousands of bands came and went, and when that Doom/Stoner/Sludge movement began gathering its molasses-like momentum, the Melvins never really situated themselves firmly in that camp either.

If esteemed by many as one of the more innovative outfits to have emerged from the ‘80’s underground, the band has consistently downplayed that accolade, seeming to prefer the status of heads-down rockers with a fly-in-the-ointment penchant ala Flipper. For instance, a record like ‘94’s Prick, or ‘01’s divisive live set Colossus of Destiny, while seemingly intended to provoke a large segment of the audience, also couched a desire for the abstract and the ambient on the band’s part.

And their association with avant-jazz bassist Trevor Dunn, which produced last year’s very good Freak Puke LP, also underscored the experimental side of the Melvins, but that album was also straightforward enough that the listener wouldn’t necessarily forget this was the same band that released three EPs back in ’92 with covers serving as parody/ homage to the simultaneously-released ‘78 solo albums from the members of KISS.

So, as the Melvins mark their 30th year of operation, they choose not a carefully selected compilation of greatest moments or a collection of highly sought after rarities (though it is early yet; releases of this nature might well be in the pipeline), but instead a covers record with a bevy of special guests. This brings a sense of occasion while also being quite familiar (and therefore low-key), for covers have been a part of their strategy for almost as long as they’ve been extant; second album Ozma from ’89 featured KISS’ “Love Theme (from KISS)” (retitled “Love Thing”) and a CD bonus track of The Cars’ “Candy-O.”

And the disparity between those two choices is significant, for as they’ve aged the group has dug into a bunch of material both near (Alice Cooper, Flipper, Jesus Lizard, the Unsane) and far (Pink Floyd, The Tubes, Merle Haggard, Paul McCartney & Wings) from the overall gist of their sonic terrain. So, instead of a break from the norm Everybody Loves Sausages effectively communicates a whole lot of what makes the Melvin’s tick, with its closest predecessor being 2000’s The Crybaby, also a covers-heavy record featuring an assload of guest collaborators.

The material on Everybody Loves Sausages retains their general approach to covers and falls roughly into those two groups, the expected and the less so. While the majority of the record is filtered to varying extents through the band’s late-period sound, none of the left-field choices are demolished, with the LP’s most pleasant surprise being a reverent and affectionate take of Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.”

If these guys’ closest theoretical tie to punk is that abovementioned will to provoke, it thankfully doesn’t find expression in the urge to abuse appropriated material that’s assessed as being somehow worthy of scorn, a trope that almost always leads to a stylistic dead end. The Melvins surely have an antagonistic side, but it’s a smart one, even if they don’t really want that fact spread around too much.

For instance, their ’91 destruction of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” didn’t really connect, at least to these ears, as disrespect toward the song or the band but rather seemed intended as a raspberry to the staleness that had come to plague VU covers in general, stuff that was either overly worshipful or even worse, intended to establish hip credibility. There’s none of that aura on Everybody Loves Sausages, and maybe the best way to communicate the album’s casual but engaging appeal is to overview the less unexpected material and then tackle the tracks that deviate from that zone.

Some of the less surprising cuts also serve to spotlight bands that haven’t really received their just due over the years, and while Australia’s The Scientists do possess a hearty posthumous following, a case can certainly be made that Kim Salmon and company deserve the sort of respect that’s paid to their geographical contemporaries The Birthday Party.

“Set it On Fire” from the group’s classic ’83 mini-LP Blood Red River is given a pounding, dexterous salute in tandem with Mark Arm of Mudhoney on vocals, which makes sense since The Scientists were one of the handful of u-ground units to really impact the more punk-inclined wing of the Grunge experience, Arm’s band in particular. What’s here treads pretty closely to the original while injecting just enough individuality to make it a worthwhile endeavor, being denser and more driving and less situated in the swampy, Stooges-derived punk-psych of the original.

The decision to grapple with “Romance” by ‘80s San Francisco cult punks Tales of Terror can also be considered a nod to another important u-ground Grunge influence, for both Arm and Kurt Cobain were smitten with the band and quite vocal about the importance of their sole self-titled ’84 LP.

But it’s more interestingly a nod to punk-era Bay Area strangeness, and this is apropos since Tales of Terror had dealings with San Fran label Boner Records (a trio of songs on the ’85 comp Them Boners Be Poppin’), said imprint also issuing three of the Melvins early albums, specifically Ozma, Bullhead, and Melvins/Lysol.

The take of “Romance” found here, delivered by the Melvins Lite trio lineup with Dunn on standup bass, and in a nice curveball, vocals, is considerably less gnarly than the original, which was a massive collision at the crossroads of proto-Grunge and Germs-extension. This version is less ragged, so it emphasizes the talent of Tales of Terror, a band that could and surely has fallen prey to the evaluation of mere youthful acting out. So, it’s an admirable undertaking. It’s also in line with the appealing and rather accessible qualities of Freak Puke.

Trevor Dunn is from Eureka, CA, but he’s had a lot of dealings in San Francisco. So on one hand it’s no shock to find Melvins Lite delivering a reverent, inspired reading of “Timothy Leary Lives” by ‘80s SF weird-meats Pop-O-Pies. But on the other, this group, an important part of the history of both Faith No More and Mr. Bungle (for whom Dunn played), are sorta easy to forget about, more notable for their likeable eccentricity than for a substantial amount of distinguished musical achievement.

Pop-O-Pies were a band only possible in San Fran. Indeed, they were notorious for their intense devotion to covering The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’”; for a long while it was the only song in the band’s repertoire. This resulted in coverage for the group in Rolling Stone in an era when the magazine’s editors wouldn’t have pissed on most punk groups if they found them ablaze in their own backyard.

The original of “Timothy Leary Lives” extends Pop-O-Pies curious brand of satire, again only possible in a locale where legit hippie-era weirdness didn’t really die but instead morphed into tomfoolery that often came to be associated with punk, and this cover, while spirited and with Dunn again on vocals, registers more as a simple doffing of the cap, especially since it wanders pretty far from the Melvins’ general wheelhouse. As such, it’s more of a cool curiosity than an album highlight.

Everybody Loves Sausages’ inclusion of a rip-snorting and humorous reading of The Jam’s “Art School,” featuring Tom Hazelmyer, formerly of the terrific Halo of Flies on vocals and guitar, is one of the LP’s best moments however, with fake accents and mayhem abounding. And the appearance of both “Carpe Diem,” a wonderful slice of The Fugs’ post-beat lunacy, and “Female Trouble” from the late and eternally rad drag-queen Divine, might seem to fall into this LP’s corral of more unusual cover choices.

And both are definitely atypical songs, but they actually serve to spotlight the band’s freak-friendliness. No, neither “Carpe Diem,” sung by current Melvins’ bassist Jared Warren and drummer Coady Willis, or “Female Trouble,” the last of the LP’s Melvins Lite tracks with Dunn once more at the mic, exceed the value of either source’s defiant, lurid non-conformity, but that would’ve been a major feat. The very fact that both songs turn up on Everybody Loves Sausages says much about the cut of the Melvins’ jib.

To really begin with the uncharacteristic additions, the traditional chestnut “Black Betty” appears in a run-through that’s like Ram Jam on methamphetamine, over and done with in less than two minutes. Therefore, it’s considerably less tacky than the version it can’t help but recall, but it’s also not one of this LP’s best cuts. “You’re My Best Friend” however, does rise to the top, mainly because they do right by an exceptionally written tune.

Sung by Caleb Benjamin of Tweak Bird, it replaces a keyboard-soaked intimacy for the bold lushness of the original, and it’s a gesture of true class. However, the inclusion of “Attitude” from the late-period Kinks’ album Low Budget was initially a head-scratcher for this correspondent, mainly because I hadn’t heard the song in years. Reacquainting myself with the original and then comparing it to the Melvins’ treatment featuring original Blondie drummer Clem Burke did prove enlightening.

While it was obviously chosen because the band simply liked the original, it also kinda seems like a commentary on one musical generation intersecting and interacting with another, which is relevant to both the Kinks’ version’s dalliance with the punk/ new wave era they helped to shape and the cover’s meeting of the Melvins and Burke. And the cover wins, eradicating the source’s slightly problematic aspects through thunderous velocity, with the veteran drummer turning in a true peach of a performance.

The first of the album’s most audacious and rewarding tunes is a reading of Bowie’s “Station to Station” that again achieves inventiveness by being faithful to the original and distinctly Melvins-like simultaneously. The vocals are by J.G. Thirlwell (who also contributed to The Crybaby), a long-serving musician (he of the variously monikered and fruitful Foetus discography), and he does a fine job of stepping into some highly oversized shoes.

But the song that steals the show is “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” originally from Roxy Music’s classic second album For Your Pleasure, with vocals from longtime Melvins associate Jello Biafra. While The Dead Kennedys played a large role in the youth of this writer, I must fess up that Jello’s never been one of my favorite punk singers.

But his performance here is truly spectacular, the uniqueness of the man’s voice managing to channel the distinctiveness of Bryan Ferry while never directly imitating him. This and “Station to Station” provide Everybody Loves Sausages with its two moments of uncut brilliance.

Two tracks should be singled out for special mention. The first is opener “Warhead,” a cover from the songbook of UK metallers Venom with guitar and vocals provided by Scott Kelly of Neurosis. Venom is frankly a very important band, helping to set in motion both the Thrash and Black Metal subgenres, but these days they are just as frequently the butt of jokes.

This is mainly due to the group so heavily embracing metal music’s more outlandish tendencies that their fervor they occasionally eclipsed both good judgment and the limits of their ability, but it also pertains to the dissemination of an edited, and yes, hilarious recording of stage banter from New Jersey’s long gone venue City Gardens that really plays-up the cartoony nature of their persona.

The result is that while many acknowledge Venom’s significance, few people outside of the metal faithful take them very seriously. And that definitely relates to Crover and Osborne, two guys that have made a concerted effort to escape the burden of serious interpretation over their work, with this attempted avoidance essentially making it easier for them to get down to the serious business of making records.

And yet they close this LP with a swell rendering of “Heathen Earth” by Throbbing Gristle, an outfit that couldn’t be more opposite from Venom in terms of critical reception and cultural standing. Where Venom are recognized as innovators but more regularly mocked for their perceived silliness, Throbbing Gristle are heavily celebrated and deconstructed for their creative breakthrough as a huge part of the early Industrial movement.

However, bookending the record with these two extremes doesn’t feel contradictory. Instead, at this late date it connects like a gesture from a band that through sheer perseverance has managed to have their cake and eat it too.

This is a lot of word spillage for an LP that falls a little short of the level of masterpiece. But in being a concise distillation of what’s always made the Melvins so special, it’s a rousing success. Everybody Loves Sausages is another fine addition to their mammoth body of work.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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