The cover of the Minutemen's new six-song EP, "Project: Mersh" (SST034), depicts three record company executives anguishing over the sales figures for Minutemen albums, while one of them exclaims, "I got it! We'll have them write hit songs." The cover, painted by D. Boon, the band's guitarist and singer, reflects both the wicked humor and acute self-awareness of this important band and their label.
Both the Minutemen and SST Records know where they stand in the American marketplace. They are outsiders, but they're not about to take it sitting down. Instead, they'll have a laugh, continue to try to shake up the world and even release a more commercial record if they feel like it.
SST Records may be the most important small rock label in the world. Located in southern California, the label is the home of the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Black Flag and Hu sker Du . Over the last five years, SST's releases have traced the metamorphosis of these onetime abrasive punk bands into wildly ambitious rock eclectics. The driving sense of frustration and alienation remains, but the bands are living up to punk's deepest promise -- to challenge, threaten and provoke their audiences and themselves.
On "Project: Mersh," the Minutemen, who perform at the 9:30 club tonight, are still railing against social and political complacency, but not in the musically raw and dissonant fashion of the past. Their sparse and choppy funk attack is still heard on the antiauthoritarian "The Cheerleaders" and the antiwar "King of the Hill." However, these songs are not only a steady groove, they are polished and trimmed with pumping horns, fluid and jazzy solos and other attractive touches.
The Minutemen's new-found accessibility is crystalized in "Take Our Test," a lovely and melodic piece of folk-rock in which D. Boon declaims to his girl, "I'll vote 'yes' for life in the big 'choice' poll." However, if melody, choruses and instrumental precision have brought the Minutemen closer to the mainstream, the band continues to use its diverse influences to shape a music that, for all its good times and humor, is essentially didactic.
Just as the music on "Project: Mersh" embraces a variety of styles, so too the Minutemen's analytical vision scans in all directions, including back at themselves. Bassist Mike Watt's "Tour-Spiel" is a self-conscious examination of the band's experience with songwriting, touring and performing. Over an insistent rhythm riff, Watt exclaims, "I've got to look inside me and cut the tour-spiel."
Cutting the "tour-spiel" is just the Minutemen's way of saying they are less interested in the rituals of rock entertainment than the music's potential to communicate, which is one reason "Project: Mersh" speaks so convincingly.
If the Minutemen jab and parry their listeners into a state of awareness, their label mates, Hu sker Du , prefer the knockout punches of big chords and reckless rhythms. On their new album, "Flip Your Wig" (SST055), this Minneapolis trio proves that, like the New York Dolls or Sex Pistols, they can take the passion and frustrations of youthful outsiders and blow them up into grandly explosive rock 'n' roll. "Flip Your Wig" is hardly as thoughtful or conceptually intriguing as "Project: Mersh," but Hu sker Du knows how it feels and the resulting music is galvanic in its emotional impact.
What's surprising is that underneath the sprawling, near-chaotic guitar rock of "Flip Your Wig" are 14 songs of dazzling variety and unexpected tunefulness. Singer-songwriter Bob Mould still lacks vocal character beyond a hoarse, impassioned cry, but his versatile guitar work colorfully rambles from frenzied heavy metal leads to fussy power chords with an instinctive sense of how to lift a song. On his nightmarish fantasy on Vietnam, "Find Me," Mould's screaming guitar coda dramatically escalates the song's terror-filled lyrics.
Most of Mould's compositions are simple expressions of frustration with friends, lovers, progress and, of course, the privileged. But tirades like the dittyish "Hate Paper Doll" or the punky "Divide and Conquer" are infused with too much gut-level immediacy to sound cynical or neolithic. In fact, like all of the most powerful rock 'n' roll, the impact of Hu sker Du 's "Flip Your Wig" is positive and uplifting simply because they share their emotional catharsis and clamor for a new and better day.