Tuesday, October 9, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1186: The Smalls

I’m feeling a bit tired tonight after a fun long weekend of celebrating. It was a worthy cause, though – today is Sheila’s birthday. Happy birthday Sheila! I am so lucky to have you in my life.

OK, enough love and tenderness – I need to get my grunge on.

Disc 1186 is… Waste & Tragedy
Artist: The Smalls

Year of Release: 1995

What’s up with the Cover? In the days before either sitting or smiling were invented the only joy was to be found in a full and fearsome beard. It was a stark joy, for a stark time.

How I Came To Know It: I saw the Smalls on a reunion tour about four years ago and bought all four of their albums that night at the merch table.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Smalls albums and “Waste & Tragedy” is my favourite.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

The Smalls make music which is for throwing your hair in your face and pointing your face to the floor, with muddy guitar riffs that shake the lower spine. This is the nineties most famous sound: grunge. While the Smalls would never achieve the fame of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam or Nirvana they made some smokin’ grunge in their day, and “Waste & Tragedy” is some of their best.

Like all Smalls albums, “Waste & Tragedy” is filled with in-your-face ferocity, chugging out crunchy guitar riffs that are deceptively simple. On some of their records this ferocity threatens to drown out the song structure, but “Waste & Tragedy” finds the right mix of mud and lightning.

A big part of this is the playing of Corb Lund. Lund would later switch to a solo country career but here he just plays the bass and does a fine job of it. There are a couple of riffs that are a bit too similar to one another, but they’re good riffs, so it’s hard to complain.

Singer Mike Caldwell has an almost careless delivery, but his natural talent for staying the pocket keeps him on course. In terms of what he’s singing about, I couldn’t tell you. I could only pick out a couple of lines at a time, but what I heard was cool.  This music isn’t really for the lyrics anyway (although it is worth noting that many of the fans at the live show knew ALL the words, so maybe I’m wrong about that). For me it is about the groove and the restless energy so while the album came with a lyrics booklet I didn’t bother to look any up.

Hands down the best song is “Pity the Man With the Fast Right Hand” which has both a funky Lund bass riff, and a bit more sound separation than many of the songs. This lets it breathe and develop over time. In places it sounded like early Red Hot Chili Peppers crossed with early ZZ Top, topped with a layer of rocks.

Hollow Hello” sounds a bit too much like Kurt Cobain singing “Hello…how low” on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but maybe that’s the point. “Uranusexplodes” lacks focus but the title is super funny, so I give it points for that. If you haven’t made some joke about the planet Uranus then you haven’t lived. I’ll never forget the day I learned that Uranus had deposits of methane gas and spent that afternoon quizzing my Grade Eight science teacher with this knowledge. While he tried to teach us far less interesting things about the planets I interjected with straight-faced queries of “Is it true Uranus has deposits of methane?” “Are these deposits ever in danger of exploding?” Comedy gold. I don’t recall if I pushed it into detention territory, but it was certainly possible. But I digress.

“Waste & Tragedy” is a good soundtrack for disaffected youth. It has a rebellious edge, filled with vitriol and bad choices. I couldn’t follow all of the lyrics in “Take It From a Ryeman” but the song had ‘sullen drunk’ written all over it. It also has a relentless lurch to the riff that makes you think of someone stumbling about after one too many of Canada’s answer to malt liquor.

“Waste & Tragedy” is the Smalls demonstrating just the right mix of power and groove, and while I couldn’t bring myself to grade it out at four stars, it came close. Lately I haven’t reached for a Smalls album often, but when I do it tends to be this one.

Best tracks: Pity the Man with the Fast Right Hand, Maybe That Prophet Scared You, (Take It From a) Ryeman, Waste & Tragedy

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