Graded on a Curve:
Shorty,
Thumb Days

Remember that scene in Halloween where Donald Pleasance is lurking in the bushes by Michael Myers’ empty house and this little punk named Lonnie’s getting ready to go up the walk and Pleasance cups his hands around his mouth and stage whispers, “Hey! Hey Lonnie! Get your ass away from there!”?

Well, all I got to say about Thumb Days is “Hey! Hey you! Get your ass away from this record!” Because there’s something serious amiss in the mental department with Shorty, the Chi-Town post-rockers who put it out, and the contents of said record are far scarier than anything Lonnie might have come across in Michael Myers’ house.

The five dudes in Shorty may look like a harmless bunch, guys you wouldn’t look twice at at a house party, but they have a positively inspiring knack for making your skin crawl. Needless to say, I love ‘em to death.

On 1993’s Thumb Days Shorty established its bona fides as the creepiest practitioners of Midwestern Noise Rock, an honor I bestow upon them in large part due to the unique vocal stylings of the great Al Johnson, who sounds like your basic pedophile with a bad case of laryngitis. He has this way of hissing like the snake that seduced Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and gives off this real perv-o vibe that makes you think here’s a fellow you don’t want near your person because he just might start licking you. The album gives off the same vibe.

It’s hard to make out a word Johnson’s singing and that’s probably a good thing. You really don’t want to know. As for the other guys, they play a relentlessly driving species of ear-pummeling noise rock, heavy on the bass menace and kinda jazzy at places and real metallic at others. They’re prone to sudden shifts in tempo and big on the guitar feedback and the drummer has this way of lurching about like a drunk banging into things and in general they can make you real jumpy, so I would advise you to steer clear of caffeine while listening to them. I would also recommend that you look over your shoulder a lot.

You can get a pretty good idea of just how deranged these fellas are by checking out the video for my personal album fave “Coopie N’ Me.” It is, I swear to God, the creepiest music video on YouTube this side of Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch.” I had a friend once who behaved the way Al Johnson does in the video, and he ended up jumping off the roof of a casino while wearing a dress. Oh, and if the title “Last One in My Mouth Is a Jerk” doesn’t make you chuckle, I gotta think you’re a tight-ass, and the type of individual who doesn’t find Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch” creepy in the least.

Every song on Thumb Days is a fucking New Year’s Day parade, from the rampaging “Coopie N’ Me” (I’ll send you a buck if you can tell me what Johnson’s singing!) to the barbaric and riff-heavy “Rocketman, Rocketman,” which has nothing in common with Elton John’s immortal “Rocket Man” but could pass as the final transmission from the Challenger Disaster.

“Dynamite Lover” is a stagger-step monstrosity and all swagger and you’ll want to keep it away from the mouths of small children. “Last One in My Mouth Is a Jerk” opens with the sound of flying nuns being sawed in half before developing lockjaw and pounding on your door because it wants in. As for Johnson he goes, well, it’s impossible to describe how he goes. You might as well attempt to transcribe a raccoon attempting to speak Swahili. I used to think Curt Kirkwood’s vocal performance on the first Meat Puppets’ LP was the pinnacle of incomprehensibility. Well move over Curt!

Me, I love every damn song on Thumb Days and think it’s one of the coolest and funniest albums I’ve ever laid ears on, but then again I was reared on Cows and Killdozer and the Jesus Lizard and have never understood how come all your big rock critics ignored the whole Midwestern Noise Rock Scene except for Big Black, who I always thought was the least interesting of the whole bunch.

Oh, and if you think Shorty was sumpin’ you should check out U.S. Maple, the band Al Johnson and Shorty guitarist Mark Shippy formed after Shorty’s demise. U.S. Maple made it their mission to “erase rock ’n’ roll from their collective minds” and proceeded to take apart their songs and put ‘em back together again like Frankenstein monsters, leaving behind an art-fractured body of work that sounds like Captain Kangaroo deconstructing Captain Beefheart. I earnestly advice you to give ‘em a hearing.

As for Johnson, I haven’t heard much from him in a long time, and that’s a damned shame. The man’s the finest vocalist this side of former Cows’ front guy Shannon Selberg and a veritable Al Jolson for Our Times.

And by the way, which one’s Coopie?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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