by Ryan Settee
The alternative guitar-rock explosion of the early 90's produced some interesting results. There were many bands that were around for a little while before Nirvana broke out in a big way. Scenes in New York, Chicago and Seattle were big contenders, and even in Minneapolis, there were still some residual preferential effects of some bands that were a bit too late to benefit from the mid-80's signings that hadn't yet got their due (Soul Asylum come to mind). Some bands gained mild success; others had still remained in obscurity.
Of all the bands that didn't "make it" in that era, Chainsaw Kittens are one of the better ones to go unnoticed. They had enough loud guitars in there, plus, if any band best exemplified the word "alternative", the Kittens' singer/ guitarist/ primary writer, Tyson Todd Meade was it. Meade was gay, he wore women's clothing, and amidst all the flannel and dreary, unintentionally fashionable bands, here you had someone who was unique and personable. So if there was anyone who understood "alternative" and being an outcast and punk, it was Meade. The silk scarves and Bowie/Bolan glam look was no put on--this was who Meade was. As a frontman, he was the fearless wildman in the tradition of Iggy and Jagger. Vocally, he was a mix of Robin Zander, Feargal Sharkey, Iggy and David Bowie; ultimately Meade had his own style that was distinctly his.
The Kittens formed in Norman, Oklahoma in 1989 after the dissolution of Meade's previous band, Defenestration (who had released the album Dali Does Windows and was mentioned as an influence by Cobain). The band was Meade on vocals and occasional guitar), Mark Metzger on guitar, Kevin McElhaney on bass, and Ted Leader on drums. They combined fuzzy, often metallic guitars with a noticeably more fluid and smooth melodic approach than other bands aiming for the same approach on a no-fi budget. Contrast this with Teenage Fanclub's A Catholic Education and the Kittens are the clear victor in developing their melodic sense at this point in time. The demos for their 1990 debut, Violent Religion, revealed a rougher, rawer band that wasn't entirely captured in their full glory on the album proper, but there's no doubting the keen sense of melody that the band had ("Bloodstorm," "Mother Of The Ancient Birth," and "I'm Waiting"). The band put out one of the best ballads of the underground/ alt-rock era-- the piano-driven "She's Gone Mad" (later covered by fellow Oklahomans The Flaming Lips). There's equally melodic/ugly moments--often within the same song-- all over the record. Some of it may not make that much sense, sonically, but it is notable to mention that they were utilizing the same quiet/ loud dynamic that Nirvana also took, although with a bit of a different direction.
When perusing the liner notes, I came across "Phil Seymour--background vocals on 'I'm Waiting.' Could this be the same Phil Seymour of the Dwight Twilley Band? I'm thinking that it must be, since Phil and Dwight were both from Tulsa. If this is the Phil Seymour, it's clear that the Chainsaw Kittens had their pop history down cold.
In 1992, the Kittens released the album Flipped Out In Singapore, this time with Meade stepping away from the occasional second guitar and concentrating on frontman duties. Adding second guitarist Trent Bell, as well as an entirely new rhythm section in bassist Clint McBay and drummer Aaron Preston, this album had a much fuller, heavier sound. The album was produced by Butch Vig, and his presence had no doubt steered the band toward the dirtier sounds of the era. In fairness, the band was already this aggressive in the live domain when playing songs off of Violent Religion; it's just that Vig had finally caught that live energy on tape. Featuring the highlight in single "High in High School" and other strong songs such as "Connie, I've Found The Door" and "Shannon's Fellini Movie," one of the album's funny moments comes in the title track, which has some thrashy riffing over a bunch of men speaking in an Asian tongue.
Following that album, the band released the Angel on the Range EP in 1993, which is a strong release. There's been many a time when I've wished that this was an actual full length album, because they started to develop a style on this record (again with a new rhythm section, Eric Harmon on drums and Matt Johnson on bass) that was more glam influenced and had some more straight-ahead rock n' roll than their previous releases. It also has a tad more of the independently produced mad genius that crept through in Violent Religion. With Trent Bell as the main guitarist, the Meade/Bell axis now indulged in their love of 70's rock, and they are obviously both on the same page. Leadoff track "Kick Kid" shows Meade in snarling Johnny –Rotten-meets-Robin-Zander mode, and the title track clearly displays the versatility and fluidity of their new rhythm section (most telling is that Eric Harmon and Matt Johnson would be permanent with the band until their demise in 2000). Really, there's not a weak track here, and mostly that's because of the energy that the band brings in the form of 70's punk barre-chord influences that weren't as prominent on earlier releases. The glam-punk thing really developed on this EP.
Then in 1994 they released the album Pop Heiress (Altantic/Mammoth), which was to my ears, one of the best albums of the '90's. It was equal parts pop, punk, and glam, with a good dose of rock ‘n' roll sensibility. The cover sports a mock up of a Patty Hearst lookalike with a gun--hence the title of the album, and an elaboration on that title in the track "Pop Heiress Dies." There are a couple of ballads, but the rock songs light up the VU meters with a melodic classic rock/pop band approach coupled with electrifying production that, I think, only Urge Overkill (Saturation), Nirvana (Nevermind), Material Issue (Freak City Soundtrack), Redd Kross (Phaseshifter and Show World), and You Am I's Hi Fi Way can touch, in terms of bands combining great execution, production, and memorable songs and melodies. The Posies (Frosting On The Beater), Jellyfish (Spilt Milk), and Jason Falkner (Can You Still Feel? ) are all honorable mentions. I still credit the success of alt-rock in the 90's for allowing the Kittens to make an album that sounds like it was recorded on the budget of a million dollars, whilst in the end, selling significantly less than a million dollars. Why the single "Pop Heiress Dies" went nowhere is beyond me, because it had a pretty cool video and I thought that it was one of the best songs of the’ 90's.
Part of what makes that album so satisfying is because of the sound. It was produced by John Agnello (who also had worked on Redd Kross' Phaseshifter at the time) and mixed at Ocean Way Studios, the same studio where Nirvana's Nevermind was mixed. If you want to know what a rock record should sound like, this is it. There's a certain lack of bass guitar in the mix that at times seems a bit weird, but the kick drum is mixed high (so are the drums in general) and the guitars are also loud. It creates a really streamlined, burning sound that makes it sound rawer, like a sonic knife cutting through fat. It is one of those albums that sounds fantastic on a great stereo, where you're turning it up loud and feeling the full wavelength of the 80 Hz on that kick drum (a frequency that's usually mixed out so as to not "muddy" up the sound on speakers... most usually cut nowadays to squeeze out every last rogue dB in brickwall mastering). Agnello puts just the right amount on compression on the drums and the mix so as to make everything hold together well. Every listen reveals new things; the gong in "Burn You Down," the banjo in the second verse of "The Loneliest China Place," piano here and there, some mellotron symphonies, some backup vocals here and there, as well as other nuances that go under the radar. They had clearly spent a lot of time and money on the album.
More importantly, this is a mega-budget album that has no ‘AutoTune’-like tricks on this record. And I’m just basing that off of what my ears are telling me. Meade hits some sharps and flats in his singing, letting natural singing timbre and vibrato resonate. He must have a three-octave range or so, and the thing is about those soaring notes is that they really soar, because there's no way that you can take a vibrato like his and set the AutoTune to "stun" and then not subsequently neuter that vocal timbre/performance. Singing melodically (ie: non-bluesy Jim Morrison styled singing/crooning) at the top of one's vocal register (like Zander does) is extremely difficult to do, because you have to do that night after night when your vocal cords are near shredded due to abuse. "Sore On The Floor," in particular, has some unhinged screaming at the top of his lungs, and then falsetto in the choruses.
I think that the album's best and worst asset is that--much like a Redd Kross album--it tends to be a bit of "spot the influence," in that it sounds like they're running through a record collection at a fairly rapid place. As a result, none of the influences last that long, and perhaps that is why the album never really caught on in. Maybe there’s not enough continuity between songs to really establish enough familiarity with audiences in any particular sound. Even at the time that it came out (I have this on cassette), with my tastes as a teenager at that time, I remember wanting to hear more of the faster, louder guitar-centric songs.
But as my musical tastes have evolved through the years, this album now continually takes on an extended appreciation for me, as the band’s source influences have became apparent to me. It's one of those records, as a result, that was far ahead of its time. I remember Tyson saying in a 1994 interview in a magazine (I forget which one it was), "We're trying to bring back pop music. There was The Move, then Cheap Trick and then it just stopped." I mean, at that point, a band like The Move was totally foreign to me.
On Pop Heiress, there are Sex Pistols influences ("Sore On The Floor," "Silver Millionaire," "Closet Song," "Media Star Hymn," "Burn You Down"), Cheap Trick ("The Loneliest China Place," "Pop Heiress Dies," "Justine Find Heaven"), T-Rex ("I Ride Free," "We're Like..."), and Bowie ("Dive Into The Sea" and "Soldier On Your Shoulder"). Other influences like KISS and Grand Funk crop up here and there, too. It's a collection of influences that I can't think of any other band successfully combining on one record. Even Redd Kross never had as much Bowie on their albums, and perhaps that's because Tyson Meade has such a wide vocal range that he can pull off more low-register crooning. Take the more dramatic singing in "Dive into the Sea" and "Soldier on Your Shoulder"(VERY "Space Oddity"-esque)--it requires a certain amount of patience and sense of overall dramatics, whereas Redd Kross was more about absolute immediate pop appeal and Beatles stuff. "The Loneliest China Place" eventually erupts in a huge wash of mellotron, phasing, and sense of majestic triumph. "Dive into The Sea" (featuring Redd Kross's Gere Fennelly on piano) has almost jazzy, breezy touches in the verses, before erupting in huge, heavy power ballad bombast, with Trent Bell indulging in big Neil-Young-via-Slash lead guitars.
In 1996, the Kittens released a self-titled album that was much more pop influenced--Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys, etc.--released by James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky's Scratchie Records. There's plenty of 60's organ on the record, for example--which is cool--but the album has perhaps some of the worst cover art that I can remember in quite some time (cutting and pasting of random things in, perhaps, a psychedelic collage of some sort). Though it is a solid record, I lament it more so for what it is not. I miss the crazy wild-man aura that Meade had brought to the band's previous releases. Maybe it's just because the arc of their career kept on getting better and better in a rock n' roll vein that I had thought it most suited them. Then in the year 2000, they released The All American, an album of pop and some acoustic moments that was solid, but still wasn't the return to the crazy glam/pop/punk that suited them so well. Neither album did very well in terms of sales, with Mercury pulling their support soon after the self-titled album was released, and Four Alarm (comprised of former Scratchie Records employees) running into problems. As a result, The All American really only appealed to the remnants of the Kittens' fanbase.
In 2000, they finally called it a day. Though they were far less known than many other bands of that era, the fact that they lasted eleven years and survived after having being dropped by two bigger labels--Mammoth/Atlantic and Mercury--says a lot. Since then, Trent Bell has worked in his own recording studio, Bell Labs, winning a Grammy as a producer. Tyson is now a teacher in Shanghai, playing here and there as a bit of a troubadour. Trent and Tyson have occasionally done the one-off show here and there, but there's no real permanent reunion on the horizon. Tyson, in years past, had tired of being in a rock band and had lost the inspiration to write music, so it is extra-reassuring to note that he had recently recorded an album in various Shanghai schools with students. He went the Kickstarter route in 2012 and met his financial goal for that album (the latest updates of the project on his site are from June 2013). While the flamboyant wild man seems to have been permanently shelved, I hope that he looks in the mirror sometimes and sees that fearless young man staring back at him.
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