As a voracious collector of and enthusiast for local and regional music in my own corner of the world, I automatically have a soft spot for Ugly Stick. The group formed in the microscopic Delaware, Ohio and went on to be hailed as the defining act of the Columbus sound. While other critics have claimed that the quartet somehow managed to capture the spirit of a dive bar, Ugly Stick is hardly alone in this modest feat. Midwestern highways and cheap motels are littered with the carcasses of countless other bands that could make such claims. So, when it comes down to it, Ugly Stick was great for Columbus and good for Ohio.
Of course, the group’s story is fairly familiar—plenty of DIY releases culminating in an undeniable classic, shows played for no one at home and on the road, and the inevitable disbandment-and-reunion cycle. Pick Up the Hatchet is comprised of the group’s cassette-only self-titled release (1989) and the follow-up Shaved (1991). The self-titled affair is remarkably well produced, sounding thoroughly mid—rather than low—budget. As for the content? Listening to these songs more than twenty years after they were first committed to tape, it’s not hard to see why Ugly Stick became a popular live band—the songs are high in the energy quotient, littered with the occasional off-color remark, racing tempos, and vocals you kind of feel like you could nail yourself if only given the chance. In its way, Ugly Stick calls to mind early Soul Asylum and even a dash of the Replacements.
But the writing ain’t all that: most of the 14 songs here are half-baked, devolving into what are either inside jokes or racing tempos meant, perhaps unconsciously, to make good for other shortcomings. By the midway mark (“Jug Day”), the first disc has pretty much worn out its welcome. Sure, there are moments of pleasure (“Ma, I Burnt the Kettle”, “Stiff Family Robinson”, “Oh, Chancellor”), but it’s evident that the group had not yet mastered the art of songwriting. This first disc is a great find for hardcore fans and maybe even bright young hopefuls who dream of making it to the low rungs of the middle, but holds little interest for the newcomer or casual listener.
As for the second disc? Two years hadn’t changed the lads all that much. The tempos are crazed, the lyrics largely toss-offs, and everything, it seems—including the production—got sloppier. “Neighbor’s Neighborhood” is fun enough and probably went down well in the live setting; “Bless Me Cut Me Kill Me” has attitude enough, if not all the skill, but “Pick Up the Hatchet (All My Troubles Keep Gettin’ Worse)” and “Fast Cars and Fast Women” verge on painful, both stretching the quartet’s imagination far beyond its talents. “Station Wagon” is good fun, a skillfully crafted paean to the ultimate love wagon, while “Tunnel of Love” is an appropriately ridiculous 50-second blast of hilarity. But that, as they say, is about it.
Pick Up the Hatchet is a fine historical artifact, but a twin slab of joy it ain’t.