So Sub Pop didn't used to be a bunch of hype-mongering, college-rock-loving, opportunist twats! Prior to the 1995 Warner Brothers 49% buyout and Bruce Pavitt's departure, they consistently released some sweet n' gnarly garage-punk-metal classics, often referred to as “grunge” (though these late 80s Sub Pop bands are massively different from the bastardized arena-metal “grunge” stylings of STP, Alice in Chains, etc.) With the re-release of Nirvana's 1989 Sub Pop debut Bleach last year, now seems like as good a time as ever for a redux of the legendary label's early years and a redux of my long-forgotten personal favorites!
These jams got me through high school, even though I arrived at the party 10 years too late. At the time, I think the adolescent Pete was attracted to the relative stylistic similarity and underdog obscurity of all the bands (greasy long hair, four-minute songs, fuzz pedals), along with their brilliantly contradictory merging of unpretentious earnestness and high-energy, boneheaded rock posturing. I'm omitting Mudhoney and TAD, because everyone already knows they are rad. While I decided to focus mainly on Sub Pop releases, the true completist should check out non-Sub Pop releases by Skin Yard, the U-Men, and Malfunkshun; also the Deep Six Compilation, which came out on C/Z records.
Love Battery, Between the Eyes
This album has a really nice modernized 13th Floor Elevators/Nuggets psych-pop vibe, almost akin to early Flaming Lips. The title track introduced me to the wonders of the choppy tremolo guitar sound! This band probably broke outside of the mold of their label-mates and contemporaries more than anyone else at the time. They have plenty of wah pedal, swirling guitar tones, vocal subtleties, and some jangly new wave moments. “Highway of Souls” almost sounds like an American slackers' take on a Love & Rockets song. “Orange” is another highlight, blending meat n' potatoes muscle with epic dynamics and vintage psych tones–this track follows the grunge party line very faithfully, but also breaks out into uncharted territory with its strong melody and quirky guitar-scapes.
The Fluid, Glue
An excellent blend of glammy sing-along Cheap Trick choruses and growling Stoogey verses, with some slightly mathy syncopation thrown in for good measure, best exemplified on “Pretty Mouse”. This band could have achieved Nirvana-level superstardom had their songwriting been slightly more direct. They wore bandanas and stirling silver jewelry, apparently–which seems more LA than Seattle (though the Fluid was actually from Denver, so that might explain it!)
Blood Circus, Primal Rock Therapy
Primarily defined by sub-Motorhead speedfreak riffage (“Road to Hell”, “Green Room”), Flipper/Nick Cave dirges (“Six Foot Under”, “Sea Chanty”), and Kim Thayil-inspired mystical 70s Zep guitar drones (“Two Way Street”, “Electric Johnny”). The balance of slow and fast beats across the album is almost platonically perfect! One of their members is named “T-Man”, and they seem to have a penchant for officer caps and aviator shades in addition to the standard issue combat boots. The song titles say it all–its a good album for cruisin' around the exurbs with a quarter tank of bad vibes!
This cutout bin prize is definitely a Mudhoney ripoff at a glance, but the riffs are tighter, more metallic, and more intricate. In comparison, Swallow is more 'Nuge and less 'Nuggets. The highlight is definitely “Zoo”, which also appears on the legendary Sub Pop 200 compilation. This track is almost the perfect blend of the MC5 and Black Flag.
Cat Butt, Journey to the Center of Cat Butt
This rabble-rousing joint is chock-full of sloppy, garagey, hot-rodded, howlin'-drunk psychobilly tunes in the vein of Cramps/The Damned/Butthole Surfers, with titles like “Maximo” and “Freebase”. Legend has it that they got dropped from Sub Pop for trashing the label's van. Another band of bandanna-wearers!