Back in the early eighties, when “Too Many Creeps” was in regular play at your hipper city dance clubs, the Bush Tetras seemed like the perfect EP band — three or four strong tracks and adios before the sameness creeps in.
The really great cuts – “Creeps,” “Das Ah Riot,” “You Can’t Be Funky” – represented artsy funk-rock at its most danceable, though as later full-length collections would reveal, this wasn’t always sustainable on a long-player. Like their companions in tenseness, the Gang of Four, the BTs’ taut sound could occasionally push you out of the room.
Saw the original configuration in a Chicago club though — when the band was still fresh (and Laura Kennedy was their bass player) — and in concert, the band was relentless. Many of the group’s early studio recordings, “Creeps” included, suffer from a certain sonic distancing, especially when it came to Cynthia Sley’s talk/sing vocals. In a confined live setting, however, this wasn’t an issue. The band’s biggest ear hooks – no wave guitarist Pat Place’s compelling dissonant riffs and bassist Kennedy’s tribal pulsations – held you even through the lesser songs.
Since that Windy City show, the BTs have been an on-again/off-again affair. Most recently, the band regrouped in 2005, and with Very Very Happy are releasing their first studio work in a decade. A blend of both new and found recordings (five of which originally appeared on the out-of-print Tetrafied from 1996), Happy provides a good introduction to this band of clubbish undergrounders, even if the disc’s liner notes are a bit of a muddle. (Can we declare a moratorium on CD booklets that use barely discernible punctuation marks to indicate which personnel had a part in each track?)
The first five tracks feature the group’s newest incarnation (guitarist Place, singer Sley, drummer Dee Pop and current bassist Julia Murphy) reclaiming old songs and, in many cases, upping their alienated urgency. Thus, a remake of “Too Many Creeps” forsakes the original’s tenuous vocal mix for one that puts Sley’s peevish monotone more to the forefront. Depending upon your ear – and tolerance for a vocal style that mainly keeps to either sounding self-righteous or catatonic – that can either help or hinder the experience. To this listener, the only time it proves a nuisance is in the Lydia Lunch-y faux jazz cut, “Voodoo.”
In Happy‘s best tracks (you can tell the title is meant to be ironic because it repeats the word “very”), the band reaches depths of urban disaffectedness that modern bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs can only covet. And, “Voodoo” excepted, the wealth of ear chomping tracks more than surpasses EP-length. Among the highlights: the slow-rocking ode to anxiety “Nails;” “Punch Drunk,” with its bracingly ugly guitarwork; the Gang-of-Four-like “Stare You Down;” the closest thing to new wave pop this band ever concocted, “Das Ah Riot” and their expansion on the “Too Many Creeps” theme of fear-and-loathing in clubland, “Fess Up.” Two covers, a live remake of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” plus Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight,” are also included in the set, though neither track matches the original pair’s desperation.
As a bonus, three videos are also packed on the disc, including one of the original “Too Many Creeps,” which neatly captures the grunged-out-mess that was NYC at the start of the Greed Decade. A more recent “Nails” video culled from 8mm concert footage shot by Tom Jarmusch is more murky than anything. The video still sounds great, though: twenty-five years down the street, these noisy punk-funkers sound even more current and kick-ass than the band I remember from that smoky Chi-town club.
But where’s the remake of “You Can’t Be Funky”?