Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Melvins - Houdini Live 2005 - a live history of gluttony and lust

Houdini Live 2005 - a live history of gluttony and lust

Released 2006 on ipecac
Reviewed by Jasonaparkes, 05/05/2007ce


King Buzzo – Guitar, Vocals
Dale Crover – Drums, Vocals, Percussion
Trevor Dunn – Bass, Vocals, Percussion
Lustmord – Percussion, Noise on track 13

1.Pearl Bomb (1:39)
2.Hooch (2:33)
3.Night-Goat (7:36)
4.Lizzie (4:49)
5.Going Blind (4:34)
6.Cop-Ache (1:54)
7.Set Me Straight/DCH (2:51)
8.Sky Pup (3:17)
9.Teet (2:45)
10.Joan of Arc (4:19)
11.Honey Bucket (2:21)
12.Hag Me (8:05)
13.Spread Eagle Beagle (12:30)

Released in 2006, prior to the new line-up of Melvins which absorbed Big Business into the line-up and released the wonderful (A) Senile Animal, this live album finds the band revisiting their 1993 album Houdini. The first of a trilogy of albums alongside Stoner Witch and Stag recorded for Atlantic during the “Grunge Years”, Houdini is often singled out as a defining moment for Melvins. There is dispute over this, Melvins kind of a collision of the Dead, hardcore and Sabbath, one person may consider Hostile Ambient Takeover their greatest, another plumping for Prick or Ozma. It’s very hard to single out their definitive recording, one friend tends to go for the late 90s/early zeroes material like the singles released on Amphetamine Reptile and albums like Electroretard, Honky, and The Maggot which saw them cover psych-era tracks like “The Green Manalishi (with the Two-Pronged Crown)” and “Interstellar Overdrive” – a psychedelic direction suggested by Stag’s “The Bit” which remains a live favourite to this day. & as can be seen in Mr Cope’s album of the month feature, some have a preference for the brief Joe Preston-era. Melvins are one of those bands whose back catalogue I tend to like most of, though some of the early material is probably more interesting from a historical viewpoint and not everyone digs the more out there industrial side of the band, from the Lustmord-collaboration Pigs of the Roman Empire to the epic noise piece Colossus of Destiny which fits somewhere between the related project Porn and Throbbing Gristle.

ATP’s on-going annual series of shows entitled ‘Don’t Look Back’ has found many a band revisiting one particular album – Gang of Four, The Stooges, Low, Mudhoney etc – this year includes The House of Love, Slint and Sonic Youth. It was for this festival that Melvins revisited Houdini, though like many of the acts playing these concerts, they didn’t bother giving an exact reading of the original, offering different takes and a different running order. Speaking in The Wire last year, King Buzzo seemed not to be that enamoured with Houdini, preferring this version of the album – maybe the association with the troubled Kurt Cobain was a factor? Cobain is often cited as the producer of Houdini, though a look at the credits sees him, at best as a co-producer who played on a few tracks. The band asked the men in suits to ditch him when his addiction was too obvious, ending the link between the two bands previously found when Crover briefly drummed for Nirvana, when Buzzo put David Grohl in touch with Nirvana, and started by Cobain when he failed an audition to become their bassist (I think he fell asleep). Houdini probably remains the LP Cobain probably wished he could have made instead of Nevermind, though his pop nous was too apparent. You get the impression Buzzo and co could write a pop song, but can’t really be bothered (‘Set Me Straight’ and ‘In the Rain’ are close though – I don’t get ‘Plan B’s idea that the current Big Business version of Melvins is pop though, even if ‘Rat Faced Granny’ opens sounding a bit like the Strokes!).

The re-version of Houdini was actually recorded after the ‘Don’t Look Back’ shows, probably as Crover and Buzzo had put some effort into re-learning the songs, several of which weren’t played by the Lorax-featuring version of the band at the time, intended solely for the studio. This was rehearsed one afternoon and ran through twice with an invited audience in a warehouse in LA, prior to the best takes being mixed down for this album. I love Houdini, though I don’t think it’s their best album (I’m playing (A) Senile Animal and Hostile Ambient Takeover lots at present), but this version seems better and different – closer to the live Melvins I’ve caught a few times in the last year. The current two-drum lead line-up play a complex and rapid medley that includes several Houdini tracks alongside material from Honky and Ozma and a cover of Cream’s ‘Deserted Cities of the Heart’ (found here as ‘DCH’ nailed in medley form to ‘Set Me Straight’). The idea of a rapid medley of old material from a prolific act is a good one – though the band is due to play Houdini again for an ATP-festival in Spain this year.

The running order is different to the original album, which was 1. Hooch 2. Night Goat 3. Lizzy 4. Going Blind 5. Honey Bucket 6. Hag Me 7. Set Me Straight 8. Sky Pup 9. Joan of Arc 10. Teet 11. Copache 12. Pearl Bomb 13. Spread Eagle Beagle. Instead the band tear straight into a much faster version of ‘Pearl Bomb’, Buzzo and Crover joined by jazz-bassist Trevor Dunn, fusing those Sabbath-heavy riffs with a thrash worthy of Bad Brains or The Germs. This leads into another slightly faster version of ‘Hooch’ – the band offering their material a bit faster live, the version of ‘Set Me Straight’ on Tuesday had brevity worthy of the Ramones. The band then rework ‘Night Goat’, making it a much longer piece opening with a drone from Buzzo (a man who doesn’t dig the guitar solo) and feeling like a companion to the current slowed down/epic version of the psychedelic ‘The Bit’ from Stag – taking ages to come in and a relentless riff-driven piece, though this has some great feedback and drones in too…

‘Lizzie’ (spelt differently now) is pretty faithful to the original, sounding like a psychedelic Nirvana, the poppier side of the band continued with the great cover of ‘Going Blind’ by Kiss (from 1974’s Hotter Than Hell) – which is an ideal companion to ‘Set Me Straight’, suggesting that Melvins could probably have hits, but like peers’ Screaming Trees, there was just something about them…

The centre of this performance feels like a rapid medley, ‘Cop Ache’ moved up the set, the jazzy-hardcore delivery suitably uncompromising and initiating the ‘Set Me Straight/DCH’ medley and the Crover-lead ‘Sky Pup’, which is kind of funky and kind of a Melvins’ rap! ‘Teet’ slows down the tempo, a mid paced companion to the earlier ‘Night Goat’, prior to the four-minute plus version of ‘Joan of Arc.’ I always thought the original on Houdini had some vocals that sounded like The Sweet, perhaps it was just me – this is a slower/violent piece with chanting from Buzzo et al and a prediction of the current sound of Melvins.

‘Honey Bucket’ misses out the jazzy introduction of the original and chooses to shed about a minute and get decidedly hardcore on our asses, as the band choose to end this performance of Houdini on an epic note, ‘Hag Me’ extended to eight-minutes and then into a twelve-and-a half minute version of ‘Spread Eagle Beagle’ that features Brian Williams (a.k.a. Lustmord) from SPK and Crover (I’d imagine Buzzo has walked off by now). Industrial noises emanate as Crover and Lustmord offer minimal drumbeats of a tribal variety – a suitably hypnotic and uncompromising conclusion to this reinterpretation.

I’m generally of the opinion that most Melvins albums should be owned, one of those bands like The Fall, Sonic Youth, Stereolab and Throbbing Gristle who should be owned completely (even when they don’t deliver or something doesn’t quite click). This revisit to Houdini made me go back to that album, which I probably didn’t listen to much before – Stag probably the one I’ve listened to the most and the initial title I thought suitable for Unsung reviewing. It has a more trebly Stooges feel than the original, which is more grungy. Like the best live recordings, this makes you go back to and reassess the original and still feels like an odd idea – how many acts release a new version of an old album (I guess the scariest example of this remains Chinese Democracy Guns’N’Roses, who decided to re-record Appetite for Destruction for baffling reasons!). I play this live version of Houdini more often than the original and feel it’s one of the great live albums and worthy of Unsung status…

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