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The Jesus Lizard

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In 1988, deep in the pancreas of Texas, a guitarist named Duane Denison was hard at work breaking down a large chunk of the history of music into its most primal, indispensible components, and imagining some kind of uncompromising delivery to a live rock audience. Reaching out for collaboration, Denison would find David Yow, well known in underground circles as the feral lead singer and junior contortionist for the highly regarded and corrosive Scratch Acid. Yow would in turn lead Denison to enlist Yow's Scratch Acid bandmate David Sims. In addition to his estimable bass playing skills, Sims also happened to own a drum machine.

The following year, the three moved to Chicago and recorded the EP Pure, a title which has nothing to do with virginity, drugs, musical notes, or hell. While widely viewed as slightly "pre-Lizard" or "solo Duane" because it lacks drummer Mac McNeilly, it opens with a bone-crushing trifecta - "Blockbuster," "Bloody Mary," "Rabid Pigs" - thoroughly riveting compositions featuring some of the Lizard's most endearing characteristics, including: (1) Denison's guitar (it is not an exaggeration to say that his playing on "Bloody Mary" suggests blood oozing at an alarming rate from a large wound), and (2) Yow's lyrics ("Blockbuster" features a protagonist asking a young guest, who may later be barbecued, if sodomy is something he thinks he might enjoy. The joyous sing-along chorus presses the question, "Well, do ya, motherfucker?!!"). Pure's excellent cover art set the bar for all future the Jesus Lizard releases.

It was unanimously agreed that replacing Sims' drum machine with a live drummer was a must. Dipping into his memory bank of hot shit drummers, Yow suggested McNeilly of the Atlanta band 86 for the job. The pivotal nature of McNeilly's decision to join the band cannot be overstated. Some elusive and intangible four-ness was achieved with the addition of Mac McNeilly to the Jesus Lizard. These four artists would release four full-length albums for Touch and Go Records over a four year period, roughly, give or take, each with a four letter title, that stand today as some of the most original, compelling, and visceral rock music ever recorded.

Next, there is Head. (As dutifully reported by a magazine interviewer some years ago, the four letter titles were for continuity only - no meaning is to be attached to the words. So please do not think of sex, intelligence, forward motion, or toilets when considering the title of this record.) On it, Denison unburdens himself of an astonishing flurry of pent up riffage. "One Evening" builds to a central figure that is surely excavated from Physical Graffiti or Presence, and is played with such majesty and grandiosity, that laughter and tears both seem warranted. Elsewhere, Denison's fascination with texture, rhythm, and color are in evidence in the gnarled surfiness of "Waxeater," the elegiac PIL-like post-punk of "Pastoral," and the full minute single note outro on "If You Had Lips." Head comes to its thrilling climax with "Killer McHann," whose notes expertly convey flight, fear, and desperation. Yow sings as if tied down to a bench, gurgling and mewling through enhanced interrogation - extremely enhanced - before finally crying out some inactionable intelligence: "Scared of that man! Scared of that man! Scared of that man! Scared of that man!" The Pure EP is appended to Head on the CD version. A live version of "Bloody Mary" is included as a bonus track in a McNeilly powered version for your contemplation. "Chrome" is attached as well - a combination of two songs by the band named in the title, possibly the Jesus Lizard's best straight ahead rocker.

Goat is the record after Head. Its title features four letters arranged in a way that do not bring to mind Satan, blame, garbage eating, or beards. Goat delivers on the Jesus Lizard promise in ways almost too numerous to mention. Denison, whose musical ideas continue to stun throughout, has found an almost impossibly sympathetic foil in McNeilly, and the intuitive connection is fully evident throughout. Take "Rodeo In Joliet" for example, and listen how Mac washes over, and rumbles below, and bashes through Duane's keening lines, and how the combination exquisitely conveys the doomy resignation of a too long winter. Or, listen to the propulsive abandon of "Nub," all slide and high hat. By now, the Jesus Lizard was composing more and more with an eye to the live situation. Bassist Sims is revealed as the band's secret weapon, precise and substantial in the studio, wide-eyed and mouth agape, stock still in anchoring an increasingly frenzied, chaotic stage show. Yow's complete disregard for his own health and safety in the service of fan entertainment is well-documented and the stuff of legend. That aspect of the Lizard experience is perhaps best captured among these CDs on "Seasick," a Yow tour de force that invariably sent him writhing and flailing on the raised hands of audiences around the world, screaming, "I can swim! I can swim! I can swim!" The CD reissue contains truly beautiful, and, one could argue, superior renditions of "Seasick," "Lady Shoes," and "Monkey Trick" performed live. Also included are two songs that are best described as "New Wave" - both bearing titles resembling Cure songs, and both executed quite humorously and winningly. The cover photo is by Sims, and is also worthy of contemplation and appreciation.

Liar followed Goat. If it were to carry any meaning, 1992's four letter title might have suggested deceit, hate, exploitation, or treason. Liar is all of that, and none of that, in many ways a distillation of the Jesus Lizard aesthetic to that point in time. It delivers a the Jesus Lizard classic in "Puss" (albeit the only one ever to draw comparisons to Bad Company), it brings the doom in "Slave Ship," and, in "Zachariah," features another of Yow's crooner beauties in the tradition of "Pastoral." But Liar takes its gains in the new ways Sims, Denison, and McNeilly find to put each rhythm idea in an interlocking vice grip, first on "Boilermaker," the blistering opening track joined in progress, next on "Gladiator," which sounds like McNeilly slowly and mercilessly working over a speed bag, and perhaps most mind-bendingly on "Rope," a hopelessly complex hardcore send-up that is the album's crowning achievement. Don't miss Yow's rabid auctioneer recital of auto-erotic suicide, and a rare and magnificent Denison guitar solo - yes, you heard right - near the end. One can't help but ask, "How do they do it?"

Down was the final offering of the Jesus Lizard's Touch and Go era. Like its predecessors, it features a four letter word for a title, this one not evoking sex, death, sadness, or soft, warm goose feathers. Remarkable in many ways, it features the Jesus Lizard's first Christmas song, in which a woman tells the story of being poisoned by her husband with mistletoe. "The Associate" is another love song, a noir-ish lament during which Yow tenderly comments to his beloved, "You've got skin like porcelain," while Sims and McNeilly tap out the jazz. "Crusty porcelain," Yow clarifies, "restroom porcelain." Two sub-three-minute rockers occupy the heart of Down. Yow's vocal presentation is almost conventional, a conscious move that gives Down a different kind of authority than previous records. Denison's work provides the hard rock liftoff on "Countless Backs of Sad Losers," and Tejas- flavored boogie on "Queen For A Day." The rock remains undistilled through "50 Cents" and album closer "The Best Parts," and continues into bonus tracks "Glamorous" and "Deaf As A Bat." Also, in what may be a first for the Jesus Lizard, nobody dies, a steep decline from the body count implied on earlier records. Rest assured, there is no shortage of madness, paranoia, and evil intent. By album number four, the Jesus Lizard had co-opted and redefined convention. By their standards, Down is typically, reliably excellent. That other rock records of 1994 presumed to occupy the same ether is laughable.

In the end, that is the most rewarding aspect of watching and listening to the Jesus Lizard. Untethered from their times and plucked from the context of whatever trends surrounded them, these records and this band may sound better today than ever. The songs - and make no mistake about it, they are songs - can be approached from different angles, and will, in time, reveal all the things that make Rock good - rhythm, interplay, emotion, power, funk, noise, groove, humor… in the end, the words can never do them justice. "Our stuff is a little harder to get into, it's more of a challenge," Denison once commented. "Good music isn't supposed to be easy to digest." That said, it's hardly a chore to enjoy the Jesus Lizard. Their music is an astounding collage of four major talents working seamlessly and selflessly. The results are in turn punishing, soothing, harrowing, and uplifting.