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Still pissed
The return of LA punks the Urinals

If Mission of Burmaís "Academy Fight Song" was the textured, semi-gloss side of early US post-punk in 1980, the Urinalsí "Hologram" and "Ack Ack Ack Ack," released just months earlier, were its unprimed bathroom wall ó abrupt, hyper-minimalistic, and exactly right. (First issued on the bandís own Happy Squid label, this material was last available on the now sadly out-of-print Amphetamine Reptile CD retrospective Negative Capability . . . Check It Out!) "There were a lot of toy drum kits and exploding amps," says founding and current drummer Kevin Barrett of these efforts. "We were just lucky that the sound we got matched what we were trying to do. Part of it was, we never did anything the way we were supposed to."

They still donít ó the new What Is Real and What Is Not (Warning Label) is the first proper Urinals album, a full 25 years after Barrett, Kjehl Johansen, and John Talley-Jones began playing together as UCLA undergraduates. Their first performances were as part of a larger, messier anti-art cadre; if the allusion to Duchampís readymade Fountain was intentional, the surviving members arenít admitting it now. Another idiosyncrasy: though those early singles had the underground abuzz, the band left their geographical home base even less often than Burma, never embarking on the get-in-the-van grind of their Los Angeles scene mates.

"If the Minutemen had asked us to come along on a tour, Iím sure we would have done it," Barrett says. "But it wasnít ever something we figured out how to set up ourselves. Almost everything good thatís ever happened to us has been because of other bands asking us to play." This still holds true: since reuniting in 1993, the Urinals have been invited to open for Sonic Youth at their alma mater, and theyíve shared a West Coast string of dates with Mudhoney. But even with friends ó and fans ó like this, theyíve never ventured east of Austin, something they hope to change later this year.

The original members did release an LP of more serious-minded, rhythmically elaborate material after a Mao-inspired name change to 100 Flowers in 1981. Those recordings later formed one of the earliest punk-vintage reissues of the CD age, 1990ís 100 Years of Pulchritude (Rhino), which is hard to find but worth the effort. Of its angsty tone, Barrett says, with open sarcasm, "We were all suffering, there at school on our scholarships. I mean, we werenít starving street kids ó we had jobs most of the time. And we still do."

But when the trio reunited in 1993 to play at a record-release party for old friends Wednesday Week, it was under the older banner. "It was Kjehlís idea to go all the way back and work up a set from the earliest recordings," according to Talley-Jones. "It was always my impression that we would play for a year or two and then become 100 Flowers again, but we never got around to it ó weíre the Urinals by default." Talley-Jones also worries that the punk-era moniker may be misleading. "I hear it [the new album] as the next step forward from 100 Flowers. Thereís been an evolution from the most primitive musical approach to a more sophisticated one." As a production, What Is Real doesnít get much fancier than multiple guitar tracks, but itís well rehearsed and cleanly recorded, and it evinces a control and a nuance far beyond the grasp of a clutch of 20-year-olds who recorded in dormitories and other unoccupied campus spaces.

But the album doesnít often ape the later work later 100 Flowers work either, supplementing the ascetic Gang of Four/Joy Division party line typical of the time with a broader range of reference points. Letís just say that 100 Flowers wouldnít have allowed themselves to cover "Jumbo," a B-side from the Bee Geesí psychedelic period. "I bought the single years and years ago, in Germany," Talley-Jones explains. "I donít think it was ever released on one of their albums. I think itís good to do covers that arenít well known; it tells people something about you without being too obvious. But it also seemed like a song that would sound interesting stripped down to its basics, like [Wireís] Ď12XU.í " Sure enough, the Urinalsí version boils the Gibbsí arrangement down to little more than a handful of unadorned chords and an elephantine two-step stomp ó circus music by way of Pink Flag.

Talley-Jones can also take credit for the first incarnationís furious cover of the garage nugget "Shape of Things To Come." But much of the recent stylistic shift owes to new guitarist Roderick Barker, who replaced co-founder Johansen circa 1999. (Johansen released his solo debut, Tower of Isolation, last year.) Barrett says, "A while after we started playing again, the same personal and stylistic differences that had been in the band the first time went beyond what was bearable, and Kjehl decided he wanted to go solo." David Nolte, from LA garage perennials the Last, filled in during the Mudhoney tour before leaving amiably to work with both Rufus Wainwright and the Kinksí Dave Davies; after "scratching around," Barrett and Talley-Jones found Barker, whom they had known from surf-styled Camper Van Beethoven cohort Ten Foot Faces.

Although What Is Real was recorded entirely by the current line-up, it does include three songs co-credited to Johansen, among them "Cold," whose one-note, one-word choruses recall the monomaniacal early material. (And the bandís live sets frequently include 100 Flowersí "All Sexed Up" and "Presence of Mind," slabs of funkus interruptus that could still take the best of the Rapture or Radio 4 in a fair fight.) But Barkerís contributions are unmistakable, from "I Make Love to Every Woman on the Freeway," with a once-verboten guitar solo that recalls classic X as much as the songís Southern California commuter fantasy, to the electric-acoustic layering and vocal harmonies of "Cartophilia." Overall, Talley-Jones says, "weíre a more aggressive and more overtly Ďrockí band with Rod. Heís better versed in that idiom, and he just has a different sensibility from Kjehl. We try not to overindulge it, because itís easy to rely on those clichés ó believe me, there are things weíve rehearsed that youíll never hear."

There are clear connections between the bandís two lives in Barrettís stripped-down (but newly reliable) drumming and a standing commitment to brevity. (The Minutemen didnít cover the minute-long "Ack Ack Ack Ack" for nothing.) But the clearest connection lies in Talley-Jonesís sardonic lyrics and hot-needle vocal delivery. The new discís opening shot, "Teach Me To Crawl Again," isnít far from the urgent sexual uneasiness of the earlier "Strip Club" (not to mention "Sex"). But donít make the mistake of describing songs like "Let a Little Dark into Your Heart" as "nihilistic." "I disagree with that," Talley-Jones says. "The song just says that you have to accept your own darker side, and thatís different from being nihilistic. Itís unhealthy not to; we live in a country thatís run by people that never question their own motives. Theyíre so sure theyíre on the right side of every question that theyíll do anything."

Despite these political underpinnings, Talley-Jones says, "the lyrics still tend to be fairly personal. Iím not likely to write a song about Bush just because Iím angry, even though he deserves it. Even when a song is written out of anger now, thereís a little more balance or understanding of a situation." Barrett agrees that thereís been an attitude adjustment: "We still like to play hard, but itís not some vainglorious thing. Our chins arenít out in front of our noses anymore." Much of What Is Real and What Is Not plays sympathy against scorn, as on "In Praise of the Fucked-Up Girl," a spare, creeping bossa: "Who will comfort the fucked-up girl . . . and quiet the multitudes that live beneath her bed?"

But sometimes the old, unadulterated rage does poke through. The hook to the charging "Fun Pig" is a one-line putdown a collegiate art-punk could have spat out in 1979: "I never met anyone as extreme as you think you are."

Issue Date: February 13 - 19, 2004
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