As you were looking at the Coachella line-up this year, and scrolling through all those reunited and classic acts — Pulp, At the Drive-In, Mazzy Star, Company Flow, Jeff Mangum, and so on — did you expect to see fIREHOSE? Is there likely to be a more surprising (and welcome) return than this?
Nevermind that Mike Watt has more musical projects than you can shake a stick at– making piling another project on seemingly impossible– fIREHOSE feels a bit like the band time forgot. Mike Watt and George Hurley’s post-Minutemen band was always great, but it has also always been curiously under the radar. Despite the band’s strange, thorny records — ones like If’n and Ragin’, Full On — and a sound sometimes harder to pin down than even the Minutemen, fIREHOSE managed to sign to a major label (Columbia) in the early ’90s, and produced 1991’s Flyin’ the Flannel, which marked both a shift in the band’s sound and their defining achievement.
Like their reunion, Flyin’ the Flannel was a surprising, unlikely album to start off a major label run, but it also condensed all the band’s ecentricities into their most potent dose. For all the hand-wringing artists and fans do (or did) over signing to big labels, some bands thrive with the extra resources, with actual studio time. fIREHOSE was just such a band, and Watt and Hurley, along with singer/guitarist Ed Crawford, honed their funky, oddball college rock into a complex, fiery set.
If nothing else, the album makes it clear that the band isn’t retreading the Minutemen’s success. That band was built on the poles of Watt’s bass and D. Boon’s trebel-y, brittle guitar work. There was a chasm between the two, and the space between them was jarring, even combative. Here, over Hurley’s synchopated, impressive drum work, Watt and Crawford continue to work funkier lines into rock music, but they mesh their sounds into a more united front. Crawford can shout fine enough — he works up to it on opener “Down With the Bass” — but really he is the anti-Boon. Crawford practically croons on this record. He’s got more of Geddy Lee’s bleat than he does any punk snarl, but it works.
While this album moved the band further away from the Minutemen, it also distanced Watt and company from the first three records fIREHOSE put out. Their first three records, all released on SST, were a bit fuzzier, a bit more ragged around the edges. The songs, as pieces of a whole, didn’t even come close to fitting together, and the results were exciting but willfully disconnected. Flyin’ the Flannel has its share of odd shifts, but it’s a much more cohesive album than anything the band had made before. That’s not to say they don’t have breadth — the bright love tune “Can’t Believe” is a clean pop gem while “Tien An Man Dream Again” falls apart in jagged fits in its 79 second run time — but you can see the faintest connections between songs here.
This is also, as you might expect, another album that displays Watt’s untouchable bass riffage. Dude plays bass like a lead guitarist, and surprises us constantly. He drives “Lost Colors” on rumbling, slapped off riffs, while “O’er the Town of Pedro” sppeeds by on tumbling, crowded runs of notes. If Watt’s brilliance is both staggering and unsurprising — and Hurley, for his part, kills here too — it’s Crawford’s guitar playing and how his combination of funk sharpness and classic-rock textures keeps up with Watt’s bass at every step that truly sells the album. If fidelity and songwriting focus give Flyin’ the Flannel a clearer picture than its predecessors, it’s the chemistry between Crawford and Watt that gives these songs their unique power. Even when they slow things, on the moody closer “Losers, Boozers and Heroes,” their interplay is lively and energetic.
The band’s tight chemistry doesn’t keep them from experimenting and puzzling us from time to time. Their cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow” plays like some bizarro lounge act, while the spoken-word “Song for Dave Alvin” is shadowy and hushed, yet tense and troubling. Meanwhile, “Anti-Mysogyny Maneuver” is some odd combination of surf rock and prog noodling. You don’t ever get comfortable with Flyin’ the Flannel, you just come to accept that it’s always five steps ahead of you, and struggling to keep up is part of the joy of the record. There’s holes that never quite get filled in. The lyrics are both hyper-literate and yet obscured. The titles themselves tip the band’s hand a bit, cutting the ‘g’ off any gerunds — i.e. “Towin’ the Line,” “Toolin’,” the title track (but not Johnston’s “Walking the Cow” — and “O’er the Town of Pedro” employs the syncope in that first word to show us that something is missing. That Flyin’ the Flannel, despite its long stretches of cohesion, is still incomplete in the most fruitful of ways. It makes you work to figure it out — both sonically and thematically — and in that way it seems to bely its title. It’s easy, in retrospect, to see the title as some sort of signifier for the grunge movement, for the post-Nirvana commercial boom of college rock.
But this, folks, is not that. Flyin’ the Flannel is nothing so exacting, nothing so of the moment, nothing so eager to be defined. Instead, this great record pushes against the idea that “college” or “alternative” rock is a particular sound, or maybe that it even exists at all outside of record store section signs. Just as Flyin’ the Flannel was both uniquely thrilling and incomplete, so it seems is the fIREHOSE story. Just to see the shows they’re playing — Coachella, the biggest festival of the year, plus dates with M. Ward — shows the strength and incredible reach of their influence. And no wonder. For all its mercurial qualities, the power of Flyin’ the Flannel, the band’s finest record, is crystal clear.