Chainsaw Kittens – Chainsaw Kittens

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

There must come a point where a band realizes that they’re probably not going to be financially successful, or even viable. How they react to that reality can be interesting. By the time of the last Kittens album, I am sure Tyson Meade and Trent Bell had reached the conclusion that their career was not going to suddenly take off. I strongly suspect that they may have started feeling that way with this one. While no less enjoyable than should’ve-been smash Pop Heiress, it is increasingly ambitious and things are starting to feel more personal. The falling away of expectations can be liberating, and sometimes that comes through on albums. These last two Kittens albums sound pretty different from their early stuff, and even from Pop Heiress, and whatever the mindset going in, the results were pretty great.

What I Think of This Album

The guitar noise of the early period is replaced by Moog squiggles, stately strings, and guest piano by Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips. This album feels like Meade just said “fuck it;” if Pop Heiress was an album that was unjustly overlooked, then this one is an album that was predictably ignored. There is no way Meade believed this was going to sell, even in 1996; it’s way too quirky and difficult to pin down, without the loud guitars to draw in casual listeners. Which is fine – there is an element of poignant authenticity to this effort that you can’t hear on the earlier albums. It’s as if Meade decided that as fun as loud guitars may be, he didn’t need them anymore. And he doesn’t. These songs are as strong as any the band ever wrote, and at fourteen on the album, they express a wider range of sounds than before. 

There is the fact/fiction blurring, Wizard of Oz-themed “Dorothy’s Last Fling,” with a propulsive drum part, Meade’s inimitable vocals, a serpentine synth, and the first instance of wonderful work by guest violinist James Honderich and cellist Mary Beth Leigh. Then comes the irresistable pop splendor of the lurching “Heartcatchthump,” with some backing “ba da ba”s that I dare you to forsake, along with a meandering string part. Sly and winking “Tongue Trick” has a stuttering keyboard sound, appropriate, I guess, for the tenderest song about road head ever. Loose-limbed but sinister, “King Monkey Smoke” rides organ swells as Meade struts his stuff, feeling confident enough to both growl “you can grope my rope, man” and admit “I’m a middle class dork.”

Drozd’s piano shares top billing with Mike Hosty’s lap steel on the jaunty “Bones In My Teeth,” which nonetheless does not skimp on the strings. This song is about smoking? Seems oddly pedestrian after the diverse subject matter so far. Doomed ballad “Waltz Across Debris” – with some fine work from Drozd – proclaims “we’ve got stereo tvs” and that is reason enough to despair. The band takes a plastic news anchor to task on “Ballad of Newsman 5,” lambasting his clean teeth, smooth skin, and dandruff-free hair; the strings here coexist nicely with the crunching guitars, sometimes going into a John Cale frenzy and other times gently wrapping the song in warm blanket.

Meade describes a sexual encounter turned violent on the harrowing and sad “Mouthful of Glass.” Eight songs into this album, and every single one is a keeper. “All (no surprises)” is an overlooked song, perhaps (on an album no one bought, but still). A delicate ballad with guest vocals from Maraya May, it gets more muscular at times, leavening the faster rhythms with the string work of Leigh and Honderich and Bell’s fingerpicking. “Sounder” is a tidy encapsulation of Meade’s feelings about being an artist (“there’s a sound in my head” and “can you hear me?”).

There are three songs I can do without. Drozd again excels on “The Leash,” with a chorus that leaves me cold, but it’s still a decent song. “Bicyclehead” is uttterly disposable. “Mad Hatter’s Blues” is the oddest, most abrasive of the bunch – it sounds very out of place on this album – but it’s not unlistenable. Even the weaker songs here have something, or a few somethings, to offer. The album ends with the beautiful, simple autobiographical ballad “Speedway Oklahoma.”

Cellist Leigh and violinist Honderich also played in the Starlight Mints with original Kittens bassist Kevin McElhaney. I like that Bell’s studio is named Bell Labs – clever.

The Best Thing About This Album

The strings on this album add a whole new dimension to the Kittens’ sound.

Release Date

October, 1996

The Cover Art

Horrifying. Disembodied organs are usually a bad idea, art-wise. The font is also terrible. There is not a single good thing about this cover (well, maybe the llama). I have seen an alternate cover – with a speedway and a nice, clean font – though I don’t know from whence that came.

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