Underappreciated Album: Vexed – The Good Fight
Vexed’s The Good Fight is, simply put, a bizarre and riveting little musical document. Released by Seattle indie C/Z as the 1980s bled into the 1990s, the record — the band’s only full-length offering? — is essentially without genre or much in the way of context, sounding both vaguely but nothing like pre-grunge indie punk, angular art rock and highly rhythmic jazz/funk.
To make matters more complicated, the record also is more than just a single narrative. The CD release of the disc contains the 1990 record The Good Fight, all three tracks from the nearly impossible-to-find 1988 7-inch EP Maybe, and a handful of other B-sides, studio variations, and odds and ends. Though the Teriyaki Asthma compilation offering “G.W.Y.M. (Go West Young Man)” is absent from the proceedings, the disc still might have been better titled The Good Fight and Other Fronts.
The Good Fight proper begins, well, with “The Good Fight,” which after a quick punch to the gut and a driving refrain, introduces the listener to the basic elements of the trio: funky, repetitive bass patterns, often-quirky and sometimes-spare guitar lines, and clean, precisely timed percussion that could be called metronomic if not for its strange signatures and frequent break-neck stops.
On the first track, we also get our first taste of guitarist/vocalist Milton Garrison’s unique delivery as he unleashes a theatrical and even campy falsetto while repeating a phrase that sounds like “Don’t want to talk about/Don’t you bring it up.”
The introductions of “The Good Fight” are followed by “Simple Cocks,” which, a few overcooked but oddly engaging guitar solos aside, seems to hint at the dreamy instrumental sway Pell Mell nailed a few years down the road. Then there’s the nearly eight-minute-long “A Cruel Accounting (Spare Change?),” whose muted lullaby of an introduction (and its related, bookended closing) is violently tossed aside by the jagged, stop-and-start rhythms of its central passages. It’s also here that the listener may get their first sense of how many colors are on Vexed’s palette.
Though the music is far from the subtle, it’s downright scary how far it goes in the insinuation and inference departments, referencing the guitar-driven roar of the pre-Nirvana Northwest as readily as it does jazz structures. Listening to a breakdown in the song’s second half, it’s hard not to also hear even more obscure or less-obvious elements, everything from tribal percussion (listen to how drummer David Lapp alternates mounted tom hits in the sequences of his 4/4 backbeat) to military marches (the pace and measured roll of percussion in the aforementioned opening and closing).
Similar observations about unforeseen depth and influence could be made of the quiet/loud dynamics of “Memories of Things We Never Had,” the punky, pump-your-fists-in-the-air Descendents/Dead Kennedys hybrid “P2,” or the dissonant textures and roared vocals of the borderline-anthemic “Gang of Youth v. 1.1,” a gem of a song that features some simple but effective lyrics for anyone feeling trapped by their transition from youth to the working world.
It’s not until the second half of the 13-track disc, though, that all the parts of Vexed’s musical equation begin to make sense. (Maybe the seven songs in “Surplus,” as the CD jacket labels it, should have been dubbed “Context.”)
On “Ad Nauseum,” from 1988’s Maybe, Vexed toys to brilliant effect with Alfred Butler’s intoxicating bass patterns and organic, full-band loops, something they returned to on tracks like “Memories of Things We Never Had.” On “Ad Nauseum,” though, the band feels like a clear precursor to contemporary post-rock acts like Ui and even Tortoise, its rhythms and repetitions not setting the stage for further experiments as much as they take center stage themselves.
It’s also the little details on the “Surplus” material that can be the most engaging: the perfectly timed warps and bends of a few harmonic notes on “Xians,” the lurching verses of the Descendents-influenced “Resistivity of a Highly Viscous Fluid” or “P3,” the appropriately danceable funkiness of “An Eximegastential Groove Beat,” or the way that Lapp’s drums repeatedly betray the year of their recording, all reverbed snares and echo-heavy toms and precise kick drums. (A motion-blurred photograph on the CD jacket also drops a hint as to why the drums sound so pristine: you can vaguely seen the word “Roland” on part of Lapp’s possibly electronic kit.)
There are some dispensable moments here — I prefer the biting lyrics of “Gang of Youth v. 1.1” over the instrumental, album-closing “Gang of Youth v. 1.0,” though both versions are great — but, all in all, the record’s closing tracks are a fine way to provide the listener with some hints as to how the first tracks were crafted.
Now if only the listener could get some hints about what’s happened in the nearly 15 years since The Good Fight. Vexed, indeed.