A Couple of Northwest Comps – “Secretions” (1988) and “It’s the Water” (1991)

I ran across this pair of grunge-era comps the other day, and since I love a good comp I figured why not. Secretions was put out by C/Z Records in 1989 and features a dozen contemporary Seattle-area bands, while It’s the Water goes an hour or so south down I-5 to check in on the Olympia scene circa 1990. Of the 18 bands contributing to these comps I was familiar with some of them (Coffin Break, Crypt Kicker 5, Skin Yard, Dangermouse, and Fitz of Depression), but only in passing, so this is all pretty much new territory for me.

Secretions (1989)

I thought I knew what I was getting from Secretions given that it was put out by C/Z – something a bit punk and edgy. But it turns out this has a much more indie bent than I was expecting. Of course if I’d read the subtitle of the album I might have been better prepared – A diverse collection of music from some of Seattle’s best-known independent bands. The key here is the word “diverse”, because it’s a bit genre-bending, which is a good thing.

Crypt Kicker 5’s “Shoot to Kill” is an excellent track, though one that seems to have gotten stuck in a time warp in 1982 and escaped it just in time to put this out at the close of the decade. It has strong flavors of post-punk-meets-new-wave, though a bit updated. H-Hour’s “Overlook” is similar in that it has that time traveling quality to it, the funky bass screaming early 1980s and the vocals channeling mid-1980s goth giving the whole thing a very To Live and Die In L.A. soundtrack feel. And lest you think these are criticisms, they most certainly are not, because both these songs are rad as hell. “Nevada” by Vertigo Bus is the other A side winner, coming at you like a gloomy, down-tuned Bangles song with fantastic harmonies to create two disparate sonic qualities, a collision between girl-band sweetness and being completely covered in all black clothing on the hottest day of the year gothiness.

The B side opens with Couch of Sound’s “Lousy in the Tropics”, which is the most unusual tune on Secretions. Musically it’s free jazz while vocally Amy Denio provides a surrealist scat delivery over the top. Coffin Break gives us the most straight-forward song, the pure punk rock “Just Say No (To Religion)” played in a less-angsty but still hardcore style. The side closes with the fairly preposterous funky western jam “Pony Song” by Fred; I wouldn’t want a whole album of that, but for one song it’s a blast.

The “indie” in the subtitle isn’t used in the same way as the rock subgenre we now know as “indie”. Instead it’s in the original sense of the term, short for independent, an independence both from major-label sales pressures and from the constraints of standard genre definitions. Almost every track on Secretions falls outside of the norm, and frankly that’s a good thing. Lest you think this is pure DIY though, keep in mind that the legendary Jack Endino produced most of these tunes so from a pure sound engineering standpoint it’s great – each band was given the opportunity to provide a high-quality recording of their particular style.

It’s the Water (1991 – though recorded in 1990)

When you think about what was happening musically in Olympia, Washington at this time, one naturally defaults to the stuff coming out on K Records like Beat Happening, The Go Team, and Some Velvet Sidewalk, stuff coming out of the permissiveness of the Evergreen State College environment. But there’s another Olympia that isn’t so radical. It has a more working class, almost small town vibe to it, and there were some other musical undercurrents happening there at the same time.

It’s the Water looks to capture that “other” Olympia. (♠) The songs area heavy, layered with influences from Sabbath and the Stooges and punk attitude. For my money Helltrout’s “Sex Death” is the big winner, weighty and dense with gargling-with-Jack-and-broken-glass vocals from Steve Helbert. Their second number (each of the six bands on It’s the Water contributed two songs) also bring the heavy while giving Helbert the opportunity to not torture his voice quite so much. Calamity Jane comes through as well with some Riot Grrrl edginess – (♣) “You Got It Rough” is a definite girl power anthem, while “Olympia” is a bit more experimental, especially in the vocals. Honorable mention to Fitz of Depression for “Beer 30” just cuz… it’s always Beer:30 somewhere.

(♠) To be fair, though, K Records’ Calvin Johnson is in the “Special Thanks To” credits, so I don’t want to imply there was some kind of class war happening among Olympia musicians, only that there was this entirely other scene happening that most people don’t know about.

(♣) OK, OK… so some of this could have been part of the K Records camp too. So sue me.

“Another Pyrrhic Victory” Compilation (1989)

Sub Pop certainly signed more bands and survived the demise of grunge to emerge a pretty powerful label, but for my money Seattle’s C/Z Records put out the best cops from the grunge era, period. Their first ever release, way back in 1986, was called Deep Six and included the likes of Green River, The Melvins, and Soundgarden, they got Nirvana for their 1989 Teriyaki Asthma 7″ comp, and put out regular releases by bands like Skin Yard, Coffin Break, and 7 Year Bitch. That, my friends, is quality.

I recently came across a vinyl copy of their 1989 Seattle comp Another Pyrrhic Victory, and as soon as I saw that Malfunkshun was included there was no question that I was buying it. The front cover says it all – “The Only Compilation Of Dead Seattle God Bands.” And these are the bands that died two years before Nevermind came out, put grunge on the map, and pissed off one of my friends for kicking off flannel and hiking boots as a fashion trend among the girls at his midwest high school. Trust me, he’s still mad about it to this day. But he can’t blame the bands on Another Pyrrhic Victory, because they were all long gone by time grunge took over music.

Some call me Georgie-boy,
Some call me Landru…
— “My Only Fan” by Malfunkshun

So opens the first track on Another Pyrrhic Victory, the trashy “My Only Fan” by Malfunkshun, led by bassist and vocalist Landru, aka Andy Wood the future frontman of a little sleaze band called Mother Love Bone. You can hear a bit of that future in “My Only Fan,” though Wood’s vocals advanced by leaps and bounds by time Mother Love Bone’s first EP came out in 1989. Green River follows that fancy guitar, high pitched rocker the way that only they could, by slowing it down, way down, with plodding weight and Mark Arm’s moaned vocals on “Bazaar,” a song I’ve never heard before. In fact I’m almost positive I’ve never heard any song on this comp before.

Things get really interesting for me with the next two bands on side A, 64 Spiders and My Eye, neither of which I’d heard of before. 64 Spiders keeps it slow and heavy for the first minute or so of “Bulemic Saturday” before the song kicks into high gear… and then slows it down again, all part of an up-and-down pattern. Their second song, “They Ain’t,” immediately follows the first, a raspy, angry, driving number that reminds me a bit of early Tad (which is ironic, because Tad is a member of one of the bands on this comp… but it’s not 64 Spiders!). My Eye closes out the side with another slower track, and the lead singer sounds like he’s channeling his inner tormented Alice Cooper. This one kicks into gear for a bit as well and is a decent rocker.

H-Hour (featuring one Mr. Tad Doyle on drums) opens up side B with the most interesting song on the comp, the 10+ minute “Medley,” which sounds like a more rock version of The Cure. And I mean that in the best way possible, because I think it’s killer. Musically the band is tight as a drum, keeping a steady driving pace for vocalist Johnny Clint, whose voice is what drives this to the top of my list. They contribute a track to another C/Z comp called Secretions, and I may have to try to track it down just to hear more H-Hour.

Next up is Landru’s second appearance with Malfunkshun’s “Shotgun Wedding,” a much less sleazy song than their first track, but still a bit of dirty little rocker. My Eye then steps forward with another decent number before we get to the pièce de ridiculousness, Green River’s irreverent version of the Christmas song “Away In a Manger,” which is preposterously awesome. Words can’t do it justice. They don’t change the lyrics or anything – it’s all in the presentation and attitude and impertinence. My favorite part is the one that sounds like an old-timey country song…. which is immediately followed by some Jimi Hendrix style guitar work. If you’re easily offended by the idea of someone mocking this religious Christmas song, I’d suggest you skip this one.

Another Pyrrhic Victory might be the best early grunge comp out there, every bit as strong as Deep Six, so if you find it, buy it.