Graded on a Curve:
Get Smart!,
“Oh Yeah No” EP

The 1980s US rock underground was loaded with bands, but only a few of them became famous. Get Smart! was one that didn’t. Formed in Lawrence, KS in 1980 by guitarist-vocalist Marcus Koch, bassist-vocalist Lisa Wertman Crowe, and drummer-vocalist Frank Loose, they were extant for most of the decade, shifting operations to Chicago along the way. That’s where the six songs found on the new “Oh Yeah No” EP were recorded, by Iain Burgess, in the year 1987. Post break-up, the tracks were shelved and only pulled back down after the band’s reunion. Given final mixes by Steve Albini last year, they were released on CD in November of 2020 by the Capital Punishment label, with vinyl imminent.

If Get Smart! didn’t get famous, they were far from unknowns, debuting in 1981 with two songs, “Numbers and Colours” and “Ankle Deep in Mud,” on a flexi-disc that came out with an issue of Talk Talk, a hometown periodical published by Kansan music promoter Bill Rich. Talk Talk strived to be “The Midwest American Rock and Reggae Magazine,” with the flexis produced by Rich’s label Fresh Sounds.

Along with the cassette of a live show in Lawrence by Australian Industrial act SPK and a Talk Talk flexi featuring William S. Burroughs, Rich put out the tape Fresh Sounds From Middle America, Vol 1, a pretty noteworthy release in US u-ground terms, as it included tracks from The Embarrassment, The Mortal Micronotz, The YardApes, and five from Get Smart! In short, the tape reinforced that the ’80s US underground was far from a coastal phenomenon.

In ’81, Get Smart! released the 4-song 7-inch “Words Move” on the Syntax Music imprint, and in ’84, their debut full-length Action Reaction came out on the Fever label. Fever’s distribution deal with Enigma, a huge label in the subterranean ’80s scheme of things, is probably how most non-Midwesterners heard Get Smart!, as Action Reaction track “Just for the Moment” was included on the label comp The Enigma Variations alongside such heavy hitters as Naked Prey, Divine Horsemen, Green on Red, Game Theory, and Redd Kross.

Indeed, The Enigma Variations served as my introduction to the band as Enigma navigated copies of Action Reaction into the racks of indie shops in Northern Virginia, which is where I discovered it in the late-’80s. Sadly, I never landed a copy of Swimming With Sharks, their second LP, which was cut after the move to Chicago and released on Enigma subsidiary Restless in ’86.

But I have listened to Swimming With Sharks over the years and just went back for a refresher in service of this review. Like the rest of their catalog, it holds up extremely well as it establishes Get Smart! further blending aggressive dance-punk a la Gang of Four and Pylon with classique=moderne action reminiscent of X and Get Smart’s Kansas contemporaries The Embarrassment (who called their sound “blister pop”).

The guy-gal vocals really underscore a connection to Pylon and especially X, as the guitar edge and general intensity kinda insured that Get Smart! wouldn’t break out very far beyond the parameters of college radio. But they were much more at home in the underneath anyway, getting included on Sub Pop magazine’s 5th and 7th compilation tapes, from ’81 and ’82 respectively. However, as the ’80s u-ground was beset by the fallout of hardcore, some got the idea that Get Smart!’s allegiance to melody was a study in rapid fire antiquation.

Frankly, that was a dumb idea, as the opening title track of “Oh Yeah No” makes clear. It’s rhythmically urgent, has a tough, ragged riff, is loaded with the tandem vocals of Koch and Wertman Crowe, and wraps up in a fine hair over two minutes. If emphatically dancy (pogo-style), it’s still quite catchy as a tune, a duality set to please the groovers and the song-lovers in the crowd, though it’s obvious that Get Smart! was simply following through on their own inspirations rather than calculating for wider appeal.

This is part of what separates this EP from the more contempo (as in 21st century) recreationists of the dance-punk style. Also, there are additional apples in Get Smart!’s basket, as “Rhythm Empty” carries that X influence into decidedly Paisley Underground territory, highlighting the band’s connection to Enigma (as that label issued a sizable percentage of that subgenre’s stuff).

“Under the Rug” stretches out and gives Wertman Crowe a vocal spotlight, with the band at their most melodically punked-up. Still, the ties to Vanessa Briscoe Hay remain as strong as those to Exene, and that’s great. That punk angle (the mention of Buzzcocks by others is astute) extends into the following cut “Blonde Goes West” as Koch takes the vocal lead, though he’s nicely accented by Wertman Crowe throughout as they join together to usher in the track’s finale.

It’s the sturdy non-era-specific pop-rock of “Painted Floor,” with Wertman Crowe again up front, that really drives home Get Smart!’s growth. And with a gnarled guitar line, Loose’s workout on the toms, and more X-ian vocal harmony on the choruses, “Paradise” brings “Oh Yeah No” to an inspired close. It’s altogether a sweet surprise, as many recordings made by outfits just before a breakup tip off that the end was nigh. That’s not the case here, as finishing touches so recently added raise expectations for the band’s reunion material.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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