Monday, February 28, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 96 - Urge Overkill

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Is Urge Overkill the most obscure act that I've done for this project? The thought struck me when I went to Wikipedia early in the week to do a little research, only to find that only one of their albums actually has its own page. This is the first time I remember this happening; even Mannheim Steamroller had detailed Wikipedia write-ups.

This is strange because apparently, for one brief, Tarantino-fueled moment in the early nineties, Urge Overkill had a burst of fame before that flash in the pan sputtered and died. This strange career arc quickly became more interesting to me than the band's actual music. I had picked Urge Overkill after "Sister Havana" came on Pandora one day and I kinda liked it; I discovered I had another song from the group in my iTunes via the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, and decided to devote a week to the outfit. I thought the band was a bigger deal than it actually was; it turns out these two songs are the only two even semi-hits that the group ever had. 

The members of Urge Overkill took the path from underground sensations to drug-addled has-beens, but somehow missed that middle stage where they were actually successful rock stars. Their 1993 album Saturation, coupled with that track in Pulp Fiction, was supposed to be their breakout moment. Saturation was Rolling Stone's 7th best album of the year, the Village Voice's 16th best, and in a Canadian critics' poll it was the best album of the year, beating out classics by Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam. But the band was stuck in a rough place, abandoned by the underground for "selling out" while never really being embraced by the mainstream. Now naming Urge Overkill in the same sentence as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Pumpkins is like playing a game of "one of these things is not like the other." More recently, the AV Club listed Saturation as one of eleven albums that was a classic "dead end or false start."

So, for all intents and purposes, it appears that the Internet has collectively forgotten about Urge Overkill. And while I can't pretend that their music is anything more than by-the-numbers guitar rock circa 1991, the fact that they've slipped through even Wikipedia's collective memory means that I'm inclined to rank the group as slightly underrated. Listening to Saturation, for instance, reminds me of summer and the nineties, and these are two thing that will conjure up nothing but good memories in my mind. Urge Overkill's current following in 2011 is effectively nil, but their existence as a footnote to history only makes their one-off quasi-critical-darling all the more interesting.

Wait, except the band has a new album coming out? This year? Nothing is dead forever, it seems. Though if this band couldn't even strike it big in the nineties, I'm not holding out hope for their prospects in 2011. But stranger things have happened, I suppose.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I liked "Sister Havana" when it came up on Pandora, and their cover of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Since it turns out most people who are familiar with Urge Overkill haven't gone beyond those two songs, I guess my knowledge was better than I thought. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Saturation (1993) every day this week. I also listened to THe Supersonic Storybook (1991) and the Stull EP (1992) three times, and Exit the Dragon (1995) once. 

WHAT I LIKED:  Urge Overkill isn't really treading new ground or doing anything radically different, but it's solid guitar-rock that was undeniably fun to listen to. "Sister Havana," the song that got me interested in the band, is remarkably catchy, and is surely going on my Songs-To-Play-Loudly-While-Driving-With-The-Windows-Down-In-Summer playlist. It's one of those fun songs where the squealing guitar riffs, the catchy chorus, the juvenile head-banging energy all coalesce into something greater than the sum of their parts. Also, if this song is not on Guitar Hero, it should be, because it would kick ass. 

Saturation is a few tracks short of being a good album, but the first half is pretty solid. Along with "Sister Havana," you have "Positive Bleeding" (basically "Sister Havana" redux), the laid-back "Back on Me," and the energetic "Bottle of Fur." The album is replete with roaring guitar riffs, singable melodies, and that strange combination in which the album carries a lot of musical enthusiasm while still undeniably carrying the stamp of that nineties slacker mentality. 

If you combined the five best songs from Saturation with the six songs from the group's Stull EP, you might have a truly great album. Made to escape a contractual obligation and go hit the big leagues, the EP actually contains a great mix of the band's rawer early stuff with some more mainstream songs. Besides the cover of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," there's a vast range of style from the easygoing "Stull (Part 1)" to the punk "Stitches." Supersonic Storybook is a little too "underground" for my tastes (the sound quality of the recording is particularly dreadful), but the guitar-work on this album is enjoyable - "The Candidate" was one of my favorites to jam out to.


While the first half of Saturation suggests a solid effort, but the second half drops off considerably, starting with the annoyingly repetitive "Crackbabies," the noodling "Heaven 90210," and the awful "Operation Kissinger," a hidden track that I wish I had never found. Maybe it was the drugs, or the fame and fortune that they must have assumed was soon to be theirs. But the group descends into a parody of themselves in the course of one album, and I'm left with the feeling that what they sincerely recorded on track 1 is nothing but ironic posturing by track 13. 

The early Supersonic Storybook is raw and energetic, which both works for and against the band. Some of the songwriting is great, but the production value is awful. Songs like "Henhough: The Greatest Story Ever Told" perhaps might have been able to be crafted into something halfway decent, but as it stands, it's pretty terrible. 

Finally, I probably didn't give Exit the Dragon the attention it deserved, but the laughable posturing on "Jaywalkin'" put me off from the start. Whereas Saturation was a sunny, warm album, Exit the Dragon finds the band trying too hard to snarl and act tough. Give me goofy rock songs about girls and the beach any day.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's Jesus Urge Superstar (1988) and Americruiser (1990), two more of the band's independent albums that might be worth a listen. And, apparently, that new album Rock and Roll Submarine due out this year.

I enjoyed Urge Overkill quite a bit (and even feel like I made a discovery rather than merely choosing another critical darling). I didn't know what to expect for this group, but a good chunk of their music ended up being a lot of fun. That being said, I think I'll stick with my Stull and Saturation, and you probably won't find me combing the record stories for Rock and Roll Submarine on release day. Some things should stay in 1993, and Urge Overkill is one of them. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon"


A sad and sort of beautiful song. I thought about putting the rocking "Sister Havana" here, but this is the song of Saturation that kept going through my mind the most, even though it sounds like nothing else on that album. 

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Fine Young Cannibals