Underappreciated Album: Bastro – Diablo Guapo
There is a brief pause – not long enough to even hide a breath – before David Grubbs plainly states, “I don’t know who to blame for car alarms,” and his voice becomes engulfed in a repeating pattern of jagged electric guitars and tight but explosive drumming. The moment is from “Is That a Rifle When It Rains?,” the sixth song on Crookt, Crackt, or Fly (1994), Gastr del Sol’s Drag City debut. The juiced-up, distorted guitars of “Is That a Rifle When It Rains?” seem almost alien and out of place on the record, an atmospheric compendium of acoustic musings, concrete sound constructions, and opaque lyrics.
Five years earlier, such noises from Grubbs would have seemed tame.
Grubbs formed Bastro shortly after the disintegration of the much-heralded punk outfit Squirrel Bait in the mid/late-1980s. Initially built around Grubbs, John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, The For Carnation), and Clark Johnson (Squirrel Bait), the band called to mind the guitar dynamics of Louisville native sons Slint as much as they did the violent pressure-cooker punk noise of Big Black and Rapeman. The music was smart, no question about it, but it had enough venom and vigor coursing through it to knock you flat on your back.
Johnson was eventually replaced in the band by Bundy K. Brown (Tortoise, Directions in Music), and, shortly after his departure, Bastro began more and more to favor atmosphere over aggression. Within no time, Bastro mutated into Gastr del Sol, released an understated, majestic debut on Teenbeat Records, and welcomed indie figurehead Jim O’Rourke to its ranks.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But, before Gastr del Sol drew attention and critical acclaim for its uniquely academic approach to indie rock, Grubbs was busy proving that rock was at least half of the equation of post-rock. Nowhere did he do this better than on Bastro’s Diablo Guapo, released by Homestead Records in 1989.
The record is a powerhouse and a firecracker from the first measures of “Tallow Waters,” with McEntire and Johnson laying a firm foundation for Grubbs to narrate with off-kilter shreds of electric guitar. Following “Tallow Waters” is “Filthy Five Filthy Ten,” which features some of the record’s best examples of how Grubbs can make his guitar scream and roar without even having to hammer out a chord. (The weapon of choice here is controlled bursts of feedback and harmonics.)
This kind of live-wire energy doesn’t let up. “Guapo” surges with a rattling bass line and incredibly effective and understated work on the hi-hat and toms from McEntire. Hearing how he and Johnson keep the song barreling on while Grubbs interjects spirited blasts of noise – support is also given from horns – will make you hunger for a new record from the Sea and Cake that abandons orchestrated pop structures for some bitter and loud three-chord punk.
The record, however, isn’t all about trying to emulate the modus operandi of Steve Albini. Johnson and Grubbs wind lightning-fast bass and driving guitar lines together on “Short-Haired Robot” and “Engaging the Reverend” in a way that makes it almost impossible to not want to jump around. “Decent Skin” – the record’s longest track, clocking in at just 3:15 – slightly slows down the beats-per-minute assault, but still hits hard due to its ability to complement abrasive choruses with occasional lulls and gradual swells on Grubbs’ guitar.
The eerie swing-and-sway of “Wurlitzer” hints at some of the piano contributions Grubbs would later lend to Codeine and others, a warped-jazz interlude of sorts that offers a moment to regroup before the record’s closing explosions. Care for some more dimension? Bastro’s take on Phil Ochs’ “Pretty Smart on My Part” shows what happens when folksy sentiments are filtered through a Marshall stack and prodded along by the pummeling drum rolls of John McEntire. The end result may be closer to the velocity of southern California punk than the plain-talking observations of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
The record closes with “Hoosier Logic” and the almost anthemic “Shoot Me a Deer.” On the closing track, you almost can imagine Grubbs lashing out at a guitar with too much electricity running through the strings. With Britt Walford (Slint, the For Carnation) sitting in on drums for McEntire, “Shoot Me a Deer” almost literally bursts at the seams, Grubbs screaming, louder and louder, amidst shards of electric guitar, “In this pavement sweating enclosure, I ask you two things. Set a place for me and shoot me a deer, faster still.”
In recent years, while former partner Jim O’Rourke toys with 70s rock, revamps orchestral pop, and tours with Sonic Youth, David Grubbs has dropped more than a couple references in his solo work to more straight-forward modes of rock-n-roll. But it would take a lot of fire in his stomach to recapture the textures that roared, rather than ebbed and flowed, back when Bastro released this oft-overlooked release