Sunday, October 17, 2010

I don't hear too many folks flying the flag for SQUIRREL BAIT these days, so I'll raise my hand. Back in the day - that'd be mid/late '80s - they were kind of a big deal for me, or at least a big enough deal for me to own their only two recordings and give them a spin beyond the mere perfunctory. They made what can only be termed as a semi-splash among the underground rock cognescenti, which I guess means one could call them a critic's band [ie. - they got the right heads singing their praise and went onto influence others]. More than that, you're also probably likely aware of the fact that the band's quick demise soon led onto a plethora of equally influential groups and projects, both good and bad.
Hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, the band existed from 1983 - 1988, formed and finished whilst all the members were still teenagers. Inspired by hardcore, as well as the buzzsaw guitar of Husker Du (the band they're always compared to) and their brethren (which means you could probably throw in names like the Replacements and Soul Asylum in there, although I think they sound little like either), for some they were considered the Great White Hope of post-HC rock 'n' roll: suburban white kids who attacked their songs w/ the vigour and fury of HC yet lent the music a touch of songcraft not grafted from the short/fast/loud set. How this actually makes them any different to the likes of Rites Of Spring remains a mystery. I guess their cheerleaders were from a different crowd. For one, there was Steve Albini, as well as a certain Robert Nedelkoff (longtime Louisville collector/scenemaker/writer), which possibly resulted in Squirrel Bait's audience being slightly older than the band themselves. Of course, this is all just conjecture and quite possibly bullshit, and since I bought their records when I was 16, I can only surmise that their music was also made for The Kids.
Squirrel Bait made a semi-dent down here at the time; at least enough to get played on 3RRR and some fanzine coverage in the likes of B-Side and Pallative Treatment(!). I recall Joel Silbesher of GOD raving about 'em in print somewhere at the time, which fits like a pink rubber glove when you pair up "My Pal" w/ any tune by the Kentuckians: the similarities are there, whether Joel cares to admit it or not (I've never grilled him about it).
The two Squirrel Bait discs to contend w/ are the self-titled mini-LP from 1985, and the sole (yet short) LP from '87, Skag Heaven, both released on Homestead and since reissued on David Grubb's Dexter's Cigar imprint via Drag City. As is their wont, I see that Allmusic.com once again throws around some fairly bizarre assertions in regards to their review of the debut SB platter, comparing it to Rush and Judas Priest(!!). Huh? Are they listening to the same record?! That rates as the dumbest comparison they've made since they hinted at a spurious link 'twixt Slovenly and Guns 'n' Roses some years back (true story!).
Squirrel Bait has eight songs, seven of which fly pretty close to a Flip Your Wig/Slip It In sound hybrid, complete w/ Mould-y vocals, and one flat-out killer, the highlight of the record, "Sun God", a fantastic tension/release number which soars into the chorus each time in a manner that'll make fists pump air. Vocalist Peter Searcy screams out "Take it awaaaay" in such a way that'll get the heart pounding in even the biggest music burnout, and I know there's a few of you out there (I flirt w/ it occasionally).
Better yet is the full-lengther, Skag Heaven. The production is much punchier, w/ the ace, technical and even a little proggy drumming of Ben Daughtrey coming to the fore, the songwriting has improved on the slightly patchy and underdeveloped debut, and the buzzsaw guitars - "buzzsaw": now that's an over-used term for these guys, but when it fits like this, I'm a-usin' it - have the bottom end to power the songs in a far more hardcore-ish mode. Once again, I would ask you to dismiss Allmusic's ludicrous review of this disc (they compare it to Metallica!!) and simply believe my summation of it being a near-perfect collision of HC and post-HC sensibilities. It would've slotted in nicely w/ SST's roster at the time, before they disappeared into jazzbo hell, and the band was showing promise in moving into different and far more interesting musical directions. The cover of Phil Ochs' "Tape From California" burns it up - and what the hell kind of teenagers were these kids covering Phil Ochs?? - and the instrumental "Rose Island Road" ably displays the depths of musical expression these young 'nes could create sans vocals. Shorter, punkier tracks like "Kid Dynamite" and "Kick The Cat" also do the trick in a kinda New Day Rising vein. Husker Du's musical legacy - despite their greatness as a band - is a sketchy affair, at best, though Squirrel Bait did it right.
The group's demise most notably led to bands such as David Grubbs' Bastro (Big Black-ish noise-rock I haven't listened to since about 1992, and I'm guessing it doesn't sound so hot in the year 2010, though forgive me if I'm wrong); Gastr Del Sol, an experimental project borrowing sounds and ideas from the likes of John Fahey and John Cage [for the lack of easier comparisons] I dug a whole lot back in the '90s and haven't heard since; as well as his obtuse, confusing and sometimes rewarding solo career; Brian McMahan, Ethan Buckler and Britt Walford went on to form Slint, a band whose legacy and continuing popularity renders any comments I make redundant, but since that's never stopped me before, I'll note that their recordings still stand for me as highlights of their era, their unique take on prog/punk/metal being one which has been copied a thousand times yet never equalled; and the Buckler/Walford-helmed King Kong released a couple of brilliant and sublime albums on Homestead and Drag City dealing in a strange mixture of deadpan humour and almost minimalist New Wave rock 'n' roll, a description which hardly does them justice, though I could recommend their Funny Farm LP to just about anyone reading this. And so the diaspora went on...
Squirrel Bait's two recordings remain in print and easily available, and since I can still listen to them w/ great joy 22 years after purchase, they've passed the test. More than a mere footnote or springboard, they demand your attention, buckaroos.

7 comments:

Joe Stumble said...

One of the best bands ever. Hands down. I would have posted their tunes on Last Days a long time ago if they weren't so readily available for purchase.

luKe said...

for some time, i've been thinking about posting some SQUIRREL BAIT tracks but i'm glad you did a post on them since the band's two recordings are still available (recently reissued on lp) and you're a much better writer than me on these things - SQUIRREL BAIT definitely passed the test of time - Skag Heaven is pure gold.

Anonymous said...

It's a pretty good album. 'Kick the Cat' is especially exceptional.

They were pushing hardcore into a psychedelic realm, ala Dinosaur Jr.

Nazz Nomad said...

for a bucnh of little kids, these guys sounded like monsters- Their sound to me brings up Motorhead.

Joshua Meggitt said...

Not heard enough Squirrel Bait but big fans of what they - variously - became. Met a guy in Japan named Brett Larner, koto player who knew them in the early days, played me all these bootlegs of early Slint shows at backyard parties in Kentucky. Brett's quite big in the improv world, played with John Fahey just before he died and does reductionist stuff with Otomo Yoshihide et al, but he did a great transcription of 'Breadcrumb Trail' for Koto ensemble, 4 koto and 2 bass koto, sounded amazing.

wigwamblog said...

Picked up the first two LP's for a couple bucks each at the record fair on Sunday. Not having heard the band I thought "pretty sure Dave Lang raved bout these guys on his blog once".

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