When the joke is working -- witness the spot-on reconstructions, down to the album art, of KISS' ego-stroke solo records -- Seattle's Melvins come off like the idiot bastard offspring of Black Sabbath and the Bonzo Dog Band. But the Melvins' love for unreconstructed heavy metal power chords and guttural vocals can sometimes obscure what is, at its core, humor so surreal it skirts the borders of high art. Or low art masquerading as high art. Or something.
That's the single biggest hurdle on Electroretard: Too little humor, too much repetition. Released a couple months back, Electroretard follows last year's hat trick consisting of The Maggot, The Bootlicker, and The Crybaby, three full-length releases on Ipecac Recordings, laid down in a single mammoth burst in 1999 and released throughout 2000. On their Ipecac trilogy, the Melvins played every single card they had, to excellent effect nearly every time. They stomped through long, rambling instrumentals, pretty melodies shared space with noise onslaught, and a final album's worth of inspired duets (like former teen idol Leif Garrett's unhesitant bum-rush vocal on "Smells Like Teen Spirit," for which the phrase "it must be heard to be believed" might well have been coined) rounded out the whole. Particularly on The Bootlicker, the most cohesive entry in the trilogy, the Melvins demonstrated that they weren't simply a one-note outfit, a common but unfair criticism, based (in this writer's opinion) on haphazard and superficial listening.
By contrast, Electroretard sounds very much like what it is: a between-projects release (the group has just put out its official trilogy follow-up on Ipecac, The Colossus of Destiny). And while running a respectable 42 minutes, Electroretard feels shorter and slighter by far than its running time would suggest. Three covers, four reworkings of previously released original songs, and an opening track called "Shit Storm" played backward from finish to start make up the entirety of the record. Those who are already fans will like it, of course -- at least on the surface, it sounds like the band we know and dig -- but there aren't many surprises here to satisfy listeners who know what the Melvins are capable of, and there's even less here to convince anyone who's coming to them cold. "Gluey Porch Treatments," an excellent song that receives a better mix here than on its likewise-titled album, feels half-done all the same; as with the remaining three rerecorded versions, this new performance doesn't reveal anything new about the song beyond a bit of synth tweaking.
And somehow it's particularly significant that the most remarkable moment on Electroretard is not only a cover, but a note-for-note reproduction: Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" receives a loving -- there's no other word for it -- run-through that manages to replicate nearly every beep and blip in the original rendition, right down to the left channel-right channel Ping-Pong match during the song's final melodic pass. Here's the humor and the craft we were talking about earlier; but coming as it does in the final slot on the album, it's a case of too little, too late.
Calling Electroretard indicative of any current tendencies in the Melvins' artistic vision would be pointless and stupid, since it doesn't pretend to offer us much we haven't heard before. And maybe following 2000's unholy output, the band can be forgiven for treading water just a bit, as the new year kicks off. But what's most frustrating about Electroretard is how little it demonstrates the Melvins' prodigious abilities. As with a good joke badly told, the more familiar you are with the source material, the more likely you are to come away unsatisfied.
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