Graded on a Curve:
The Flesh Eaters,
I Used to Be Pretty

Shifting of size and shape across the decades yet always recognizable, The Flesh Eaters endure as one of punk rock’s very greatest bands. Since the early ’90s, this beast has sprung to life only intermittently, with the constant and essential element being vocalist-lyricist Chris Desjardins, better known as Chris D. The good news is that the most star-studded Flesh Eaters lineup, featuring members of X, The Blasters, and The Plugz has reassembled and been roaring for some months now, playing live dates and then hitting the studio. I Used to Be Pretty is the result, a strikingly worthwhile and expectations-bypassing effort out January 18 on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Yep Roc.

Back in the day, the roots-horror-pulp brilliance of The Flesh Eaters simply oozed too much weird personality to gain major popularity from inside the confines of the US punk scene, but it’s not like they were unknowns. To the contrary, two of their first four LPs, through the subsidiary Ruby, were issued by Slash Records. Furthermore, by the late ’80s, when Chris D. was helming The Divine Horsemen (and for one LP, Stone by Stone), the entirety of early Flesh Eaters output was highly respected by those who valued punk as something other than a downward spiral into the genericism wrought by hardcore.

It remains thus. Based purely on recordings, I Used to Be Pretty is likely to be chalked up as a reunion album, and that’s not wrong, but it’s important to make the distinction that the set’s 11 songs are a document of the sparks that flew after reconvening this storied lineup for live shows, first back in 2006 as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties and again in 2015 and last year.

While I Used to Be Pretty features two new songs that open and close the album plus three covers, the rest is made up of tunes already found in The Flesh Eaters’ ample discography. If that worries you, don’t let it, as the decision isn’t a retracing of steps by a bunch of utility players. Instead, it’s the greatest Flesh Eaters lineup (widely regarded as such, whether or not you consider ’81’s A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die to be the band’s recorded apex) diving into songs they never had the chance to play or record (at least not as a complete unit).

In Yep Roc’s promo text for the album, Desjardins is quoted as calling this a summation, and as the choices range from the late ’70s to the mid-’00s, that viewpoint registers as exactly right. The selections include “House Amid the Thickets” from the ’99 LP Ashes of Time, sequenced second on I Used to Be Pretty, its swampy blues-punk nastiness loaded with Steve Berlin’s sax and Dave Alvin’s blistering guitar.

It’s followed by “My Life to Live,” a prime punky chugger and the first of two songs from ’82’s Forever Came Today; amongst the highlights is D.J. Bonebrake’s marimba, which is but one of the elements that made A Minute to Pray so masterfully distinctive. The other retrieval from Forever Came Today arrives later in the album with “The Wedding Dice,” the band trucking and raging with wild precision throughout, in no small part due to the sturdy bedrock of drummer Bill Bateman and bassist Jon Doe.

Berlin gets a chance to dish some tasty skronk, but the true highlight of “The Wedding Dice” is Desjardins’ instantly recognizable syllabic gush. When coupled with his lyrics it’s a tangibly poetic thing (and highly unusual for punk, yes) that distinguishes him as one of u-ground rock’s true originals. And so, if a Flesh Eaters newbie, please nix the idea that he’s merely a serviceable vocalist and songwriter with the fortunate luck to have gained a bunch of heavily talented friends.

However, the band shines like a supernova throughout I Used to Be Pretty and especially during the down-tempo blues rumination “The Youngest Profession,” a track originally recorded for the ’91 recommencement of activities Dragstrip Riot (released by SST Records and like much of that label’s later output, yet to see reissue). Alvin’s string flailing and Berlin’s heavy breathing are especially deserving of praise.

The other two dips into the back catalog come from extreme ends of the timeline, namely “Pony Dress” from the ’79 Tooth and Nail various artists comp, and “Miss Muerte,” the title track from the ’04 release on Atavistic, up to now the last Flesh Eaters album. Unsurprisingly, the former is the nearest this record gets to trad punk (that’s still not very close), while the latter is a fine representation of Desjardins’ mature work, both in and outside The Flesh Eaters, as he’s joined by co-vocalist Julie Christensen, his ex-wife and singing partner in the naggingly slept-on outfit The Divine Horsemen.

Christensen lends her pipes to five tracks here, a definite bonus as she’s in killer form, with her contribution solidifying I Used to Be Pretty as more than just a reunion of A Minute to Pray’s lineup (she’s is a prior member through Ashes of Time and Miss Muerte). And it’s a scenario reinforced by the three covers songs here; they include “Cinderella” by ’60s garage rock kings The Sonics, a savvy choice in regard to Berlin’s saxophone and also a nice fit in terms of Chris D.’s general subject matter.

Without wiping away the largeness of The Sonics’ imprint, “Cinderella” is nicely transformed into a Flesh Eaters’ gem, as is the sheer hugeness of their take on the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac classic “The Green Manalishi.” That one stands (and adds value) as a somewhat left-field addition, but the decision to tackle the Gun Club’s “She’s Like Heroin to Me” lands right in the ol’ wheelhouse, as that band were Los Angeles roots-punk contemporaries of The Flesh Eaters; the tune’s rolling intensity serves as a nice tribute to its writer, the late Jeff Lee Pierce.

That leaves the two new songs to consider. Are they up to snuff? Jeepers creepers, yes. Opener “Black Temptation,” which heavy Desjardins heads might recognize from the inclusion of the lyrics in his 2009 book A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die (it dates from the sessions for Miss Muerte but wasn’t recorded) finds the band charging right into high (and highly engaged) gear, with Christensen’s vocals one of the high points.

But it’s the 13-minute finale “Ghost Cave Lament” that really seals the nearly-hour long set as something special. In those Yep Roc notes, Desjardins mentions that the results are reminiscent of The Doors, and that’s astute. What’s important to add is his further comment that they arrived at this outcome accidently, which is surely a big part of why the cut succeeds.

This is to say that conscious imitation of The Doors is a safe bet for a shitty outcome, but hey, Chris D. doesn’t do direct emulation. “Ghost Cave Lament” does inch toward a psych atmosphere, which is terrific. And that’s a good way to size up I Used to Be Pretty as a whole. Nary a lick is misplayed or a howl poorly uttered. This deep into the 21st century The Flesh Eaters’ B-movie horror-cheapo genre fiction thrust can register as something of an anachronism, but they sound as ugly-beautiful as ever, and to these ears that’s something to cherish.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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