The Joup Friday Album: The Jesus Lizard – Blue

TJL_BlueIn 1998, I was working in Ohio at the Dayton Daily News as a page designer and copy editor. I was also just starting to dabble in music writing and criticism, thanks to the encouragement of the features editor there. His office was always full of promotional releases and cool freebies — this was in the music industry’s last Golden Age, so it was almost as though every day was an episode of “Storage Wars” based on the bounty you could find in one small office. He would invite me in and allow me to pick through the hundreds of CDs that would arrive each week, and I would select a few to review for what now seems like an obscenely large weekly entertainment guide, considering a lot of mid-range markets produce only an A- and B- news section these days. Ah, the ’90s.

That brings us to “Blue,” a near-perfect illustration of the unbridled largesse of the music industry during the late 1990s. The Jesus Lizard was an Austin, Texas-formed/Chicago-based band known for its confrontational lead singer David Yow and crazy good guitarist Duane Denison. The Jesus Lizard got a lot of college radio play and was influential in the Touch & Go scene, having albums produced by legendary recording engineer Steve Albini. They were a noise band with hints of the Chicago industrial sound, super loud and super confrontational. They were part of that “alternative” crowd, and because by 1995, when the Lizard signed to Capitol, the major labels were signing everything coming out of that scene in the hopes they would manage to get another Nirvana. Drunk dart-throwing would probably have been more effective.

So. To review: Texas-via-Chicago, David Yow, Steve Albini, Touch & Go, confrontational, loud, noise rock, industrial.

Totally sounds like something that Capitol would want on its roster, right?

Yeah, not so much. Capitol never really knew what to do with The Jesus Lizard. By the time “Blue” was released, the band had already broken up once and drummer Mac McNeilly had left the group, replaced by James Kimball. Produced by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, “Blue” featured songs that would never work on commercial radio, especially considering that the week of its release, the No. 1 song on the Billboard chart was “All My Life” by K-Ci & JoJo. When you stop to consider what modern radio would look like today if songs like “I Can Learn,” “Happy Snakes” or “Postcoital Glow” had gotten airplay instead … well, to quote Vizzini from “The Princess Bride,” it’s “inconceivable.”

“Blue” was the bastard child of The Jesus Lizard’s catalog for a long time. People who expected something polished and snappy from a major label were left scratching their heads, and long-time fans of the band were also shut out, because although the band had reunited, this album didn’t sound like previous releases, despite the fact that you could draw a line from “Happy Bunny Goes Fluff-Fluff Along” to any track on “Blue.” Seventeen years after its release, “Blue” sounds like what it was — a more polished release from a band that had gotten tight and really good at what it did, broke up, came back together, and wanted to put something out that was a reflection of where it was at the moment. I’ve never bought into the argument that scrappy bands have to remain scrappy. Eventually, if you spend enough time writing songs and playing your instruments, you’re going to get better at what you do — and if you have someone backing you with money and access to better studios, why wouldn’t you want your songs to sound crisp, tight and polished? Somewhat predictably, more recent reviews of this album have been much kinder to it, with Pitchfork’s Nick Mirov going so far as to confess that he prefers it to the band’s earlier releases.

Now out of print, “Blue” still sneers with dangerous energy, a sonic encapsulation of the unfocused anger that defined the late 1990s for those of us trying to find a firm footing in a rapidly changing world. Within two years, the music industry would be decimated and the enormous philosophical debate surrounding major label-vs-indie label would be a quaint footnote. What remains are incongruous time capsules, songs that still spark and flame regardless of where they fit into a band’s canon.

Tagging: Amy Riley, a Joup newcomer who will be making her debut with the Friday album next week! 

 

Sara Farr

Sara Farr

Sara Farr is currently an adjunct marketing instructor at the School of Advertising Art. Previously, she worked as a graphic designer at Variety for six years, and spent 10 years before that as a music writer for various Midwestern and Los Angeles-based newspapers and magazines. Her work appears in “The Little Black Book, Music: Over a Century of the Greatest Artists, Albums, Songs, Performances and Events That Rocked the Music World.”

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