Graded on a Curve:
Urge Overkill,

Of the bands that transitioned from the late ’80 US indie rock scene to the early ’90s major label lifestyle, few if any embraced hitting the “big time” with more vigor than Chicago’s Urge Overkill. While a certain Neil Diamond cover endures as their most popular song, the band’s first album for Geffen did make some waves, and if they didn’t capitalize on its success, it remains more than a footnote or a relic of an unpredictable era. That is to say, in 2018 Saturation holds up fairly well. Its 25th anniversary reissue is out now through Porterhouse Records in a clear blue vinyl edition of 1,000.

As a byproduct of a scene where the band t-shirt became an increasingly common signifier of “regular guy” bona fides (to the point where it was almost a uniform), Urge Overkill oozed panache. And as they barreled forth into the upside-down musical landscape of the 1990s, the band progressively cultivated an image as exponents of the highlife, to the point where gazing upon their sharp threads and soaking up the air of confidence they exuded, one could reasonably expect them to offer a sound in the neighborhood of neo-loungsters Combustible Edison.

Urge Overkill rocked it heavy, however. Indeed, early on they were occasionally tagged as noise-rock, with their debut EP for Ruthless Records, 1986’s “Strange, I…” recorded by Steve Albini. His studio touch on the record is considerably felt, but even at this point, in contrast to some of their subterranean scene peers (a handful of them also from Chicago), it didn’t connect as if they were brutalizing rock forms, but rather just kicking things up a few notches in accord with the u-ground moment.

The “Wichita Lineman” b/w “Eggs” 45, the band’s first release on Touch and Go, came out the next year. At the time, some lumped in the disc’s a-side handling of the Jimmy Webb chestnut with the cover tune fun and games of their labelmates Killdozer, but it was somewhat nearer to the more stone-faced tactic as employed by Big Black. Really, it was a harbinger of things to come.

1989’s Jesus Urge Superstar, also recorded with Albini, was the first of three full-lengths that coincided with the band’s gradually rising alternative rock profile, but it’s also the final entry in Urge’s “noise-rock” period. They entered the ’90s wielding rock essence far more forthrightly via the Butch Vig-produced Americruiser, perhaps a little too much so, as the record can be hard to differentiate from some of the newly rock-centric but second tier outfits of the time.

With ’91’s Supersonic Storybook and the arrival of drummer Blackie Onassis (joining co-founding guitarist-vocalist Nash Kato and bassist-vocalist Eddie “King” Roeser) they steadied the course, and it was also right about then that the media buzz became louder; their last record for Touch and Go would be the “Stull” EP, which is where “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” first appeared, though it didn’t really take off until after Saturation’s release, when Quentin Tarintino used it in Pulp Fiction.

It’s a good version that predated Diamond-mania by a few years, but it wasn’t the only cover on “Stull,” as “Stitches” found them tackling a punk nugget by The Alan Milman Sect. In this writer’s view the best song on the disc was the riff and thump fiesta “(Now That’s the) Barclords,” though it was also Urge at their goofiest. Closer “Goodbye to Guyville” is often purported to be the band’s sayonara to the indie scene (some also say it’s about Chicago). This was inevitably going to rub a percentage of folks the wrong way as Urge Overkill signed to Geffen and strove for “rock stardom” with gusto.

For Saturation, they tapped the Butcher Bros. (Phil and Joe Nicolo), who were the founders of Ruffhouse Records and hot off producing Cypress Hill (amongst a slew of others). This was a major shift from hitting the studio with Albini and Vig (and Kramer, who helmed “Stull”), but it ultimately wasn’t a discordant development.

Of course, there have been observations that the record is too slick, but from the point of hooking up with Vig they’d been honing a bolder (and for some, alienating) approach, and Saturation, with its opening single “Sister Havana” (as a modest Alt hit the band’s second best-known tune) registered like a logical culmination of all this progress.

“Sister Havana” surely rocks, and it’s basically impossible to discern traces of their noise-rock past (this had basically been the case over the prior couple records), so it was unsurprising that the considerable hard-rock hooks (shaded with power-pop) inspired some grumping. Furthermore, by 1993, shouldering a sense of fatigue over rocking out in general was certainly fair, and thus disdaining “Tequila Sundae”’s fuzz-tinged (both in the bass playing and through the Butcher’s intermittent electronic touches) riff-fest was surely a fair response.

But in terms of crafting what is essentially Alternative arena rock (a limited if not dubious development), Urge Overkill was pretty much firing on all cylinders. And with “Positive Bleeding” they emphasized their pop-rock handiwork to the point where it’s easy to imagine Cheap Trick and Material Issue fans attending the party. This avenue only increases during the strummed mid-tempo of “Back On Me,” which is nearer to The Posies and by extension Big Star than Big Black or the more raucous side of Grunge.

However, “Woman 2 Woman” was the kind of thing proponents of ’90s Seattle could get behind (sans any palpable angst), and many did, at least for a while. “Bottle of Fur” further evinced the influence of glam-rock, but on the down side, the chiming electric keyboard opening to “Crackbabies” is rather craven, and once the track ignites it doesn’t do much more than provide the soundtrack for fist-pump and noggin-wag. This is to say, the titular reference, then fairly of the moment, isn’t particularly deep.

Frankly, if one is looking into Saturation for profundity, one will be scraping around for a while and not reaping much reward. But for heads-down rocking, “The Stalker” is kinda like the Bad Company to Royal Trux’s Nazareth-like ambitions, which hopefully points out that it’s kinda weird. With obvious production assistance, “The Dropout” brings Urge close to folktronica, a definite surprise though not as interesting as that sounds.

From there, “Erica Kane” is a solid late-album ripper (with a slower-groove in the middle), and “Nite and Grey” offers touches of both Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top while being spiked with some extraneous if not unlikeable intermingled vocal loops. “Heaven 90210” delivers a final stab at era relevance, this one considerably more appealing in its anthemic pop-rock sweep.

It caps a divisive record that works more often than it doesn’t. Think of this way; had Saturation not happened, Urge Overkill’s whole career would’ve felt anticlimactic. With their next release the big letdown sorta happened anyway, but hey, that’s not the subject of this review, is it?


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