It can feel sometimes like we live in era of retreads and historical re-enactors, a musical environment where it can be safer and more lucrative to revisit familiar ground than tamper with time-worn formulas and frameworks. Forget your local multiplex’s sequel obsession. The last couple years in underground and alt-rock circles have hardly provided a lack of models. Even when long-rumored (Pixies), emotionally charged (Dinosaur Jr.), or mysteriously illuminating (Slint), the calendar’s been packed with headline-grabbing reunions and strolls down memory lane.
So, it’s not strange to see 2006 begin with a name stamped into memory in the late 80s and early 90s as a key purveyor of the “Sub Pop sound,” a godfather of grunge most closely known for his work with bands like Skin Yard, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and, yes, Nirvana: Mr. Jack Endino. What a blessing, then, that the Seattle-based noisemonger, on his first solo outing since 1992’s Endino’s Earthworm, has the good sense not only to avoid repeating the past but to show he’s anxious to use it largely as a sonic foundation on which to further build.
That’s not to say the disc exists in some vacuum outside of the Pacific Northwest in which it was hammered out. The crunchy six-string bark and angular chops Endino honed during his heyday with Skin Yard are on full display on Permanent Fatal Error, and he doesn’t waste a moment before he unleashes them. The album-opening punk kiss-off “Count Me Out” thrashes with sometimes-alarming vitality, and its explosiveness is revisited each time Endino pairs up with the “Suitcase Nukes” duo of bassist Alex Sibbald (ex-Gruntruck) and drummer Josh Sinder (ex-Tad). On the addictive, two-minute blast “Elusive,” the trio pounds out verses with a stop-and-start ferocity reminiscent, if only vaguely, of The Jesus Lizard.
(Elsewhere, he’s aided by former Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, former Coffin Break bassist Rob Skinner, and Skin Yard alum Pat Pedersen.)
But some of the record’s finest tracks are the departures, moments where Endino drenches refrains in wah-pedal wails, soaks choruses in faux-psych reverb, or just cuts loose for some genre-bending fun. “Flight of the Wax Tadpole,” with its twangy lead rhythms, feels like a Reverend Horton Heat barnburner as covered by Screaming Trees. “Van Allen Wrench” is vintage C/Z grunge-pop and calls to mind the asides of quirky Northwestern side projects like Yeast. The lurching, muted-guitar refrains of “Swallow the Acid” or “Follow the Sun” belong on some early Tool outtake. “Strangelove,” with its shimmering guitars, calls to mind Love Battery. Then there’s the title track — a bluesy guitar romp built around devastatingly effective slide guitar, distorted scales, and funky bass figures. It’s a testament to Endino’s attention to craft here that he sells the whole track (on which he plays guitar, bass, and drums) with a tension-building, mid-song breakdown whose finest moment may be an anxious chikka-chikka on a ready-to-pounce guitar.
Lyrically, Endino seems all too conscious of what some listeners are bringing to the conversation, and he repeatedly tackles the conceptions and contexts left lingering in what some Sub Pop aficionados may call post-grunge Seattle. He makes what seems like a few passing references to the silence that preceded his latest outing (“Ask me why I’m falling behind / Waiting, watching the days pass by” are the words that kick off the record), and the album-closing “Bringing Me Down” may or may not contain some fairly straightforward statements about Endino’s views on the state of indie rock: “Your only life is winding down into / a darkened hole / Winding it down, winding it down / And how much longer can / You run and hide, the southern sky / eating the leaves and grass? / There’s comfort there / beneath the ground / you’re bringing me down, bringing me down.” An uncredited hidden track, some of the bluesiest grunge this side of the Monkeywrench, takes it a step further, cutting short a pounding refrain for a multi-tracked chorus of critics.
Most sound like Endino — offering everything from “Not bad,” “Take 2 was better,” and “Brutal, killer” to “Almost got it,” “A little out of tune,” and “No, listen, I wouldn’t kid ya’,” but they end with the most inviting of invitations: “So, uh, what’d you guys think?” Here’s one for the record: Incredible.
And welcome back. – Delusions of Adequacy, Feb. 2, 2006