Graded on a Curve:
The Nation of Ulysses, The Embassy Tapes

When it comes to recordings, I’ve got a simple rule: the rawer, the better. I like records that sound like field recordings of old bluesmen; you know, the kind John A. Lomax and son made on sagging Southern shotgun shack porches using a cheap microphone. Hence my love of The Basement Tapes and Pussy Galore’s version of Exile on Main Street and innumerable other super lo-fi recordings I can’t think of at the moment.

This is the reason I love The Nation of Ulysses’ The Embassy Tapes so much. They sound like they were recorded in a McDonald’s bathroom, with vocalist Ian Svenonius locked in a stall and the microphone plunged head first into a urinal full of tape hiss. They’re raw and feral and murkier than a peat bog—a primitive cacophony that will pick you up the way a tornado picks up a cow, before depositing you, your ears ringing, in the demolished remains of that seedy trailer park at the trashier outskirts of rock and roll.

I saw Washington, D.C.’s Nation of Ulysses back in the day and didn’t like ‘em, although I’ll be damned if I can remember why. They just left me cold. Maybe it was the prominently displayed DC flag. I hate all flags, and what they represent, because I’m a shitty citizen with zero civic pride. It wasn’t until I became more familiar with the, er, unique bent of band front man Ian Svenonius’ mind that I became intrigued. He envisioned The Nation of Ulysses as a political party or revolutionary outfit, and described the band’s sophomore LP (1992’s Play Pretty for Baby) as “a blueprint for the destruction of the Parent Culture. It’s like a zip gun… It’s an instruction pamphlet for kids on how to destroy their home life, you know, their domestic state.”

His simultaneously serious and tongue-and-cheek revolutionary opinions on the U.S.A., teen rebellion, etc., are revealed in NOU’s songs—in one Svenonius talks about the Nation being “seriously unserious, reverently irreverent, amoral moralists.” They were also to be found in a zine (Ulysses Speaks) the band issued at shows. Both the lyrics and the zine demonstrated that Svenonius was working at a high level of intellectual sophistication, and more importantly that he had a sense of humor, something far too many irony-deficient DC bands of that period sorely lacked.

As for The Embassy Tapes, they were rough takes on songs slated for Nation of Ulysses’ third LP, which never materialized due to the fact that the band fell apart following the departure of guitarist Steve Kroner. Recorded in 1992 without Kroner, the tapes didn’t see the light of day until Dischord Records released them in 2000. To be precise, The Embassy Tapes are a compilation album, as only 6 of the LP’s 10 tracks were recorded at the band’s “embassy”; the remaining 4 tracks were culled from live shows. In addition to Svenonius, who sang and played trumpet, Nation of Ulysses included Tim Green on guitar, Steve Gamboa on bass, and James Canty on drums.

The difference between Nation of Ulysses and its post-hardcore compatriots can be measured by the fact that in 1991 Sassy magazine declared Svenonius the “Sassiest Boy in America.” To many other bands this honorific would have been a cred destroyer and death sentence, but in the topsy-turvy white belt world of The Nation of Ulysses, how you dressed mattered, and style was substance. And if dressing like a dandy offended the tender sensibilities of the anti-style contingent, there was no doubting the frenzy of the Nation’s live shows, during which the wildly flailing Svenonius managed to break arms, legs, teeth—I think he even lost his tonsils at one gig, although this detail has never been corroborated. Svenonius described the band’s shows as “an extraordinary freak-out kind of thing,” adding that they were “really masochistic,” involved “lots of blood,” and were “cacophonous, violent, and aggressive.”

The rawness of the album’s sound compounds the aggressiveness of the material; Svenonius’ vocals sound like he’s standing 20 feet from the microphone, especially on “Gimme Disaster,” which sounds like a meeting between the Stooges and The Fall and is all squealing guitar and drum bash, and over before you know it. As for “Hex-Proof,” Svenonius screams the chorus, “Hex!… Proof!” to yet another could-be Fall song, while the guitars set off detonations behind him and generally make a prodigious racket.

As for the LP’s “Introduction,” it’s 29 seconds of free jazz skronk—the band’s jazz-loving bona fides are demonstrated on Plays Pretty for Baby’s salute to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”—accompanied by an opera singer and some drum bash. It leads straight into the frenzied “R.O.T.T.E.N,” which opens on an ominous note and on which Svenonius screams himself hoarse, going on about star fuckers while the band runs amok behind him, guitars snarling. “A.P.E. Embassy” is a slam-dunk funky chant of a song with great trombone and a happening chorus; I assume that “3317” Svenonius keeps repeating is the band’s embassy address, and when he isn’t repeating it he’s shrieking and snarling, the Sassiest Boy in America with rabies.

“Outline for Hangout” is a drag race of a tune; Svenonius doesn’t do any howling, and this one is pretty bare to the bone. Not bad, but nothing special either, although I do like the chorus. The Nation’s live version of “Shakedown (Party)” also features a great chorus and like “Hex-Proof” reminds me of The Fall. The drums bash away and the guitars are great; meanwhile Svenonius shouts, “Shake/ Shake/ Shakedown!” The ominous and slow “Last Train to Cool” opens with Svenonius repeating the song’s title over and over; he then throws in some trumpet while the guitars squeal feedback and the bass spits out pure menace. Svenonius has a great voice, and it matters not a whit that you can hardly make out a word he’s saying.

The song ends with more trumpet and squealing guitar, and is followed by a lounge version of “P-Power” from the band’s debut LP, 1991’s 13-Point Program to Destroy America. Entitled “P-Power Pt. II,” it’s a mostly spoken duet between Svenonius and Christine Billotte, of Autoclave and Slant 6 fame. They natter on to the accompaniment of some mellow drums and a muted guitar, and the song reminds me of some of the less musical moments on Plays Pretty for Baby, such as the soliloquy by Svenonius that opens that album’s introductory cut, “N-Sub Ulysses.”

I wish I could go back in time and watch the show I attended again to figure out why it didn’t blow me away, but I have my suspicions that part of my indifference stemmed from the band’s status as fashion dandies. I’ve never trusted people who put too much emphasis on what they wear, with the exception of Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire of course. The Nation of Ulysses also exuded a hipper-than-thou aura that grated; I’ve never been hip and I never will be, and the proof lies in the fact that I’ve never owned a white belt and am wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt as I write this. But I wish I’d been able to ignore the band’s hipness quotient and just listen to the music, because The Embassy Tapes are proof positive that The Nation of Ulysses were onto something great, namely kickass music with a witty philosophy to accompany it, white belts be damned.


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