A;lbum cover.

Melvins

Houdini Live 2005: A Live History of Gluttony and Lust

(Ipecac; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 27 March 2006

As the emphasis on self-revisionism extends into the culture industry there seems to be more and more artists who want to return to and renovate their older work. The spate of remasters in the past few years speaks to such desires as much as it does archival interest or increased disc pricing. In most cases, those efforts are obvious, however, and often welcome (go This Heat! Go Judee Sill!). The Melvin’s new live album is part of a different branch of this trend, where bands return to their own work and rearticulate their original intentions with new recordings.

It’s a trend that results from classical music, where, for reasons of pragmatism and chronology, there isn’t the same emphasis on “definitive” recordings. Even more recent “classical” stuff like Einstein on the Beach or Music for 18 Musicians is widely available in re-recorded forms, whether for reasons of maintenance, increased technology, the freedom extra space on the CD format provides, or simple nostalgia. The original landmark recordings are much harder to find; the 1979 version of Einstein was just re-released last year, and 18 Musicians is available but sparse. Sort of tangential, but, “hey! Music industry! Why can I buy the 2000 Tzadik rerecord of Wadada Leo Smith’s Reflectativity almost anywhere, but the original classic is impossible to find?” Do these things add to the legacy of an original album? Did Dark Side of the Moon get deeper when Pink Floyd played it entirely on Pulse? Does Luther Wright and the Wrongs’ refashioning of The Wall as a country opus make that album a suddenly vital object?

These are all rhetorical questions; the answers, of course, depend. There is a reason live albums exists, and good live albums are always doing exactly the things I’m describing. For example, “It’s Too Late To Stop Now…” or Last Waltz see Van Morrison and the Band making elegant reappraisals of their back catalogs, capturing the vital dynamics of a live performance (as much as they can be), and recontextualizing the songs which are performed. Frank Zappa’s extensive live albums (most of which, of course, are fraught with overdubbing) often see his various bands completely rearranging a wide variety of his songs. So when the Melvins perform/update/reinvent/whatever 1993’s Houdini in 2005, release it on an album in 2006, I have to ask the same questions.

Those of you familiar with Houdini will notice that the track order has been modified to a certain extent. The album was the Melvin’s major label debut, produced by Kurt Cobain (who reportedly slept through most of the sessions), and saw the band honing their rougher tendencies with the studio time afforded by this circumstance. Is this live version better? It’s certainly louder. Check the opening: the claustrophobic bass rolls that once skittered joyfully into the folds of 1993’s “Pearl Bomb” are here replaced by a straightforward guitar throttle. As a statement of purpose, the change works well: this live album isn’t exploring the nuances of its source material, but rather the expressions. The song itself, however, loses much of the furtive quality that made the original so deliciously erratic. The caustic caution of “Hooch” is pushed aside by thick guitars and a faster tempo; where the original earned every power chord fill by placing it’s own body on the rack and stretching itself interminably, this version favors Voivod mechanisms, spilling out from the speakers with little attention to tension.

“Night Goat” fares better, its creepy intro here redesigned into a funnel of feedback and cymbal, far more imposing than the initial fuzz bass ever was (and, since I was never that fond of the song that follows, it’s nice to note that on this track they never get past the intro). The band transitions directly into “Lizzie,” where the sterile Stevie-Wonder-ballad-intro feel of the original is transformed into a ragged guitar and Buzz Osbourne’s untreated vocals add essential dynamics absent from the original recording. “Going Blind” also benefits from the change. The low-key intro from the original becomes anthemic, and the song literally pulsates as the band throbs through the new arrangement. “Joan Of Arc,” a glorious sludge of guitars in its original form, here becomes a shout-along fuzz bomb. The stray feedback noises and drum fills of live performance add to “Honey Bucket” immensely. “Sky Pup” fares less well, but it’s interesting to here the riffs that propel the song freed from the extensive effects that filter them on the original.

So it’s really either/or. The album is a decent return to Houdini, but I’m not sure it complicates the original in any lasting fashion. What made the Melvins interesting was all the ways they weren’t a metal group, and here, while the overblown guitars provide immediate gratification, overall I can’t help but think that somehow they’ve dumbed this stuff down.