“Did you see the sign on my back? / says Kick me Kick me I’m a punching bag!”
Almost to the day, I live up to the name of this blog—by this I mean just squeaking in with 45 posts in a year. It was more work than I anticipated, and probably can’t sustain this kind of velocity, but I’m still interested in the project. These closer listenings really do beget a deeper understanding—for me anyway. We’ll see what I get out of this one, the last LP of a reliably imperfect band. I’ve heard more Volcano Suns than just about any other music, and even though all their records are at least a bit spotty, the stuff that works hits really hard. Coming after the penultimate Thing Of Beauty (1989; the double-LP form apparently a challenge all bands on SST had to take) the cheekily-titled Career In Rock may not be my favorite, but is as worthy as any of my time tonight.
I know going in that this is an album of underwritten songs, and would have preferred that the first one “Blue Rib” been substituted by its b-side, “Openings.” While both comprised a 45 released in conjunction with the album, the first was hardly a ‘single’ in the aiming-for-a-hit sense. Sure, both have got their la-la-la-like choruses but “Openings” is the one you’re going to keep humming. As lyricist, Peter Prescott often relies on wordplay around a simple idea—in “Openings” trying to navigate the pressures of “gala party” guest lists and “ears-eyes-nose-throat” specialists—and the double meaning approach would provide an apt title for the first song of an album too. Who knows why it didn’t make the cut, so to address what’s actually here, we begin with a deep sigh (not mine, it’s the first sound on the record) and the Adam and Eve tale of “Blue Rib” (“Will you tempt with an apple…”). It works as a mission statement of heaviness, it’s just not as good of a song (ok! I’m over it, really). They’re a decidedly unsexy band, their preceding 6 years refreshingly free of raunch, jokey or otherwise (oh, “Ultravixen” maybe) but here’s two songs straight off about full-on doing it. While I was no longer a minor when I first heard “Binds That Tie” the pornographic found sounds that begin the track made me blush all the same. It’s otherwise hardly x-rated, with only teasing innuendos like “keep that dogma leash” and “in an altered state, when I start to chafe,” and hard to tell if they are celebrating or ridiculing the strange things consenting adults do. On these final two VS albums, Prescott finally had a foil in another writer-singer, David Kleiler, and their traded lines add to the dopey fun. With its pounding drums, heavy riffs, and singalong chorus, I have no idea why this wasn’t a college radio party hit. “Mystery Date” has only gradually begun to impress me as a pop song, and it probably woulda been great live. Late in the VS career they began to add interstitial atmospheric textures and obscure movie dialogue samples, and “Silly Misunderstanding” begins with Sterling Hayden roughing up Elisha Cook Jr. in The Killing. A slower, moodier song, it adds some variety to a high-paced record, but is not particularly memorable on its own. Like “Blue Rib,” big, swinging gestures try to overcome the lack of genuine hooks in “Total Eclipse,” which still manages to come out sounding pretty cool.
“Horrorscope” is a stronger start to side two than I remembered—a brief punk ditty with Prescott barking nonsense about “novelty gum” and “a trashbag full of hair!” Next we get a trivial snippet from Raging Bull (naturally) to set up the album’s masterpiece, “Punching Bag.” It’s appropriately pummeling, and probably the most effectively they’ve been recorded, from Prescott’s tumbling toms and crisp hi-hat to Weston’s booming bass (the fierce bottom-end that he would bring to Shellac a couple years later). It’s a thrilling fist-pumper down to the final chant-along “Kiss me Kick me Kill Me!” Kleiler gets one song proper—“Show”—a not-so-riveting account of either a fan seeing a band or his own career in rock (he brought catchier tunes to Thing Of Beauty) and is also credited with “Sensitacho,” a would-be instrumental anthem a la “All World Cowboy Romance.” Not bad, it grows more remote and experimental as it does along, with short-circuiting effects giving way to an almost ambient calm. It’s a trick of course, and the blunt start of “Hey Monarch” always scares me a little bit. There’s little more to the song than the shouting of the title, a refrain I’ve never been able to make out, and just a classic unholy VS racket.
Since I’ve experienced them almost solely through records, they’ve been a deeply personal band for me. I was just getting wise as they were finishing what seems to have been an amicable final tour. I only got to see this lineup decades later when they played one song as a bonus encore to a latter Mission Of Burma show—though I sensed mostly confusion by others in the room. With two certified knockouts in “Binds That Tie” and “Punching Bag” and the rest limited to songsmithing by brute force (another case for having included “Openings”) I’d never use this album to try to convince someone else of Volcano Suns’ genius. But I’d include these 3 keepers in a XLII90 VS mix—and I have. I wonder if I’ll be listening for another 25 years, but we’ll have to take ’em one at time.