Review: Documenting a Seattle legend: Sub Pop’s “U-Men” collection

One sure fire way to know you’re getting old is when you catch yourself saying something like “Man, bands today aren’t half as good as the bands I used to go see!” (otherwise known as the “old man shakes fist at cloud syndrome”). But you know, there really wasn’t another Seattle band like the U-Men. In one of producer/musician Steve Fisk’s many great comments in the film Hype! he notes how in the early ‘80s, the Seattle scene was largely composed of imitators: “It had a fake Talking Heads, it had a fake Pere Ubu, it had a fake Killing Joke, it had all the fake Ramones you could shake a stick at.” In contrast, the U-Men took their myriad influences — the garage rock of the Sonics, the post punk of Public Image Ltd. and Gang of Four, a touch of goth — and synthesized them into something uniquely their own.

The U-Men’s recording history has previously been documented on Solid Action (1999), but that release only featured 18 tracks. U-Men includes their entire recorded output (on 2 CDs or 3 LPs): singles, EPs, compilation tracks, and their sole album, Step on a Bug: The Red Toad Speaks (1988). And most excitingly, there’s also some unreleased material. “Trouble Under Water” and “Mystery Pain” date from 1982 (or 1983; even the band isn’t sure!), while “Last Lunch” and “U-Men Stomp” are from 1984, all of them exuding the rockabilly swing that underscored so much of the band’s music.

“Trouble Under Water” and “Mystery Pain” pre-date the band’s 1st EP, and so are especially interesting, revealing how confident the band is already, with just a handful of shows under their belts; “Trouble Under Water” in particular is wonderfully bracing. “Last Lunch” rocks from the get go and never lets up. And of course they’d have a song called “U-Men Stomp,” where the rockabilly infusion is the strongest (and right on the borderline of parody). It’s one of the band’s longest songs, running over four minutes, employing a start-stop device throughout, the song seemingly coming to a halt, then revving up and galloping away again, with Bigley’s voice scatting away throughout. In fact, anyone wanting to get a quick overview of the extent of Bigley’s range should go straight to this track, which concludes with the defiant declamation “U-Men…stomp…is…the…new…thing!” And so it was.

The band’s EPs were released just a year apart, and show how much they progressed during that time; the playing is stronger, the arrangements more complex. The songs from long out of print compilations open other windows: “They!” from Deep Six is totally unhinged, while a cover of the Wheels’ “Bad Little Woman” (from Dope, Guns and Fucking in the Streets) makes you wish they’d indulged their blues side a little more. And their swan song, Step on a Bug, shows where they might have gone, had the end not been in sight. They’ve grown up, and that early edgy wildness is gone. It’s not that they don’t still rock out (there are plenty of songs on the album to attest to that), but there’s now a greater sense of control, which actually makes the band more intense — and frightening (and check out the creepy song titles: “Too Good to Be Food,” “Willie Dong Hurts Dogs,” “Papa Doesn’t Love His Children Anymore”). Bigley was one of Seattle’s best rock vocalists, and while the U-Men’s earlier recordings are a better representation of the band in their prime, Bigley’s work on Step on a Bug fully displays the extent of his vocal gifts.

The set closes with another unreleased tune, “Selfish,” a mid-tempo number with a somewhat complicated time signature (Charlie Ryan’s drum beats never faltered), and a vocal that almost feels like it’s not quite finished; in the beginning he sounds almost, well, conventional. By then, time seemed to have passed the U-Men by; the classic John Bigley-Tom Price (guitar)-Jim Tillman (bass)-Charlie Ryan lineup had fractured by the release of Step on a Bug, and Sub Pop’s cavalcade of stars was waiting in the wings. An era was over. But this lovingly compiled collection (credit executive producer Jack Endino with painstakingly pulling it all together) is a fitting tribute to a band that can truly be described as “legendary.”

( Listen to “Gila” below via YouTube. The album is available for pre-order HERE and a record release party, featuring a Q&A, will be held at Georgetown Stables in Seattle on November 1.)

Listen to “Gila

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