Tin Huey are the embodiment of every rock-critic cliché imaginable. They came out of the same mid-Seventies Akron/Cleveland scene that produced Devo, Pere Ubu, The Dead Boys, The Bizarros, and Rubber City Rebels. After wooing Village Voice lifer Robert Christgau, they were signed to Warner Brothers, who released their Contents Dislodged During Shipment LP in 1979.
It was a brilliant debut, full of quirky songs and wild time changes, all done with a sense of humor not unlike that of NRBQ. It went nowhere, and sealed their fate as a critics band forever. Chris Butler moved on and formed The Waitresses with Patty Donahue, and the rest of the group made their own way through the music business jungle. In 1999, Tin Huey got back together for a second album, Disinformation. It sold even less than Contents.
And now we are presented with a collection of leftovers and live tracks, with one of the best titles ever: Before Obscurity. Actually, the full title is Before Obscurity: The Bushflow Tapes, Bushflow being the name of the studio of the late founding member of Tin Huey, Mark Price.
I use the term “leftovers” facetiously, because a hell of a lot of bands would salivate at having material this good as remnants. From the opening track “Heat Night,” (which later appeared on The Waitresses debut Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?) through their live take on The Stooges’ classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” Tin Huey just flat-out rock.
As Christgau states in his liner notes, “This is not the kind of band I usually like.” It is a point well taken, because as Tin Huey’s career showed, they are not for everyone. But for those who choose to partake, Before Obscurity contains a wealth of clever music.
My first thought on hearing their previously unreleased version of “Heat Night” was of Steely Dan. Not the Dan that we are familiar with though. More like if Becker and Fagen had returned to New York after Pretzel Logic, and gotten involved in the then burgeoning CBGB scene.
And just as quickly as that fantasy materialized, we were into a live version of “Slide,” frat-boy rock of the highest order. The next thing you hear is the distinctive voice of Patty Donahue, she of “Christmas Wrapping,” and “I Know What Boys Like” fame, fronting the band. This live recording of “The Comb” is billed as the first live appearance of The Waitresses.
The 14 tracks that make up Before Obscurity proper all maintain this level of greatness. The surprises are endless. Whether a weird time-change, or a completely out of place lyric (or so it seems), Tin Huey never seem to falter. They really are that great bar band you just know will some day make it, against all the odds.
I know it is somewhat ludicrous to consider tracks 15-18 as bonus cuts in this context, but the fidelity is so poor, I think they are intended that way. As the sleeve notes warn: “Best listened to if a longtime fan, musicologist, or flirting with unconsciousness.” The four songs were recorded live at The Townhouse in Kent, OH in 1973.
Christgau sums things up by mentioning that the only appropriate music to follow Tin Huey is Captain Beefheart. I understand where he is coming from, with the complexity and humor and all. But my choice is pretty simple, I’m just going to get the rest of their albums, and listen to Tin Huey all night long.