Few bands ever self-sabotaged as frequently or as willfully as Urge Overkill. Here’s a band that made unpopular decisions at every pivotal juncture of its career. By the time they dropped their major label debut, the near-flawless Saturation, in 1993, the band were already pariahs in their hometown of Chicago, having inked a deal with Geffen while still under contract with indie label Touch & Go. It may sound a little absurd to toady’s music fan, but people really cared about things like indie credibility back in the day, and Urge Overkill’s cruel kiss-off to the underground earned them scores of lifelong detractors. Steve Albini is still taking shots at these guys more than 20 years after working with them.
If you played in a guitar-based in the early ‘90s, you were either a card-carrying member of alternative nation or you were in Poison. Alternative as a genre was more than a little blurry, yet the tag was still applied to a band like Urge Overkill despite the fact that there wasn’t anything particularly alternative about them. If their sound—swaggering rock n’ roll played with the devil-may-care energy of punk—confused people, the band members themselves seemed downright alien. While everyone else was shivering in their cardigans, co-frontmen Nash Kato and Eddie “King” Roeser wore leisure suits and designer shades and heartily indulged in all of rock ‘n’ roll’s time-honored vices. Despite their incongruous image, Geffen treated the band like superstars, securing them supporting gigs with bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana.
After their cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” was prominently featured in cultural juggernaut Pulp Fiction, one could’ve reasonably concluded that the band was an album away from becoming a household name. Behind the scenes, however, the band was disintegrating in a haze of addiction and acrimony. Any hopes that Urge Overkill would fill the void left by Kurt Cobain’s suicide were permanently extinguished when the band released the pitch black Exit the Dragon. An unsettling long player full of nervous energy and barely together performances, Exit the Dragon was dead on arrival when it came limping out in the fall of ’95, and the band all but ceased to exist by that year’s end. Very few people noticed that the band had made its masterpiece—an Exile on Main Street for the grunge era.
With a taut new rhythm section in tow, Urge Overkill hit the reunion circuit in 2003 and announced that a new album was imminent. Eight years later, they’ve finally made good on their word (they’re still an album up on the Pixies, so there’s that). The lean, muscular Rock & Roll Submarine seamlessly merges the grittiness of the band’s Touch & Go recordings with the shameless arena rock of their major label releases. Given all of the baggage the band has accumulated over the years, it’s remarkable to hear them return with such confidence. Their band may have fallen through the cracks, but apparently Kato and Roeser never stopped being rock stars in their own minds.
As soon at the meaty opening riff of “Mason/Dixon” rings out, the last 16 years, and every musical trend that came with them, immediately melt away. Your band has a keyboard? Well these guys have a cowbell and they are not afraid to wail on it. The three songs that open the album are all instant greatest hits. The blistering title track steals a lick outright from the Stooges’ “Raw Power”, while the thunderous “Effigy” sounds like an ‘82 Camaro rolling ominously down your block. Roeser’s songs on this go around, save for the out of place ballad “Quiet Person”, are go-for-the-throat rockers, almost all of which score direct hits. “Little Vice” is straight up heavy metal, and the strutting “Niteliner” shows off the band’s underrated guitar interplay.
Exit the Dragon’s failure had a lot to do with the selection of the Roeser-sung “The Break” as the album’s leadoff single. All of the band’s well known songs up to that point (“Sister Havana”, “Positive Bleeding”) had been sung by Kato, who was widely recognized as the leader of the band. With a penchant for outrageous cover songs, Kato was also the one who supplied the band with its sense of humor. Like Exit before it, Submarine is very much Roeser’s album, with Kato taking center stage on less than half of the album’s songs. Although he contributes the jangly “The Valiant” and the scorching “She’s My Ride”, his songs lack the razor sharp hooks of Roeser’s material. Tracks like “Thought Balloon” and “Poison Flower” meander along, stubbornly refusing to lock into a groove. When Kato and Roeser sing in tandem, however, something they’ve only done sparingly since The Supersonic Storybook, they’re a particularly formidable duo. On tracks like “Mason/Dixon”, Kato’s velvety croon sands the edges off of Roeser’s anguished bark.
Rock & Roll Submarine isn’t likely to catapult Urge Overkill back onto the national stage, yet, like Dinosaur Jr’s recent output, it’s a snapshot of a band returning to almost glory virtually unscathed. Regardless of what Steve Albini says, Urge can still throw down some no frills rock n‘ roll harder than most of their peers, past or present.