It’s been 10 years since his death, but the specter of Kurt Cobain is still haunting popular music. Modest Mouse peddles their misanthropy on a major label, Blink 182’s “gone dark,” Maynard’s in a supergroup, and Nickelback (bless ‘em) still just want to remind us. With the boy band craze on the wane, the major label “garage rock revival” already devolving into TV-ad fodder, and the nu-metal bubble effectively burst, radio pop is still struggling to rebuild the identity that Kurt shattered. Well pack up the cats, folks, because after building a nine-year career by simultaneously leading and mocking the post-“grunge” movement, the boys from Local H, Chicago’s best mainstream ‘90s alterna-act (yeah, you heard me, Billy Corgan) have more to teach us than ever.
And class was in session for the throngs of 16-year-old suburbanites who showed up for this record release show at the Metro. The crowd was overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly hoodied. These were the boys from your high school who, despite being sports stars of one variety or another, still hung out with those weird stoners. Or the frat boys who secretly snuck off to study while the rest of the brothers slept. Not hip enough for proper, full-fledged indie rock and not thick-skulled enough for proper, full-fledged aggro-rock, they found themselves here, watching singer/songwriter/guitarist Scott Lucas and drummer Brian St. Clair kick off their tour in support of their new album, the brilliantly titled Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles?.
But it wasn’t until three songs in that the kids got what they came for, when Lucas and St. Clair chewed the scenery with “Fritz’s Corner” from 1996’s As Good as Dead. Back then, Lucas’ snarl of “I’m not mad / I’m just bored / And everything I do is only because / There’s nothing much left for me to do / And that includes you” countered Nirvana’s self-loathing with a healthy dose of self-mockery. Lucas moved his tongue to his cheek but still managed to scream out in angst with the best of them. And while this dip into the back catalog offered an early highlight—with Lucas’ new Ryan-Seacrest-style haircut as the only indication he’s not 25 anymore—you can’t help worrying that some of the young Q101ers there didn’t get the joke. It would be a shame to see Local H lumped together with the new breed of whiny, vaguely misogynistic hard rock acts out there.
In any case, Lucas and St. Clair followed that up with “Alright, Oh Yeah”, creating a two-song sequence that perhaps set too high a standard for the rest of the evening. While the material on the new album differs little from Local H’s past work, it failed to bring the boys in the crowd to the same ecstatic froth, with the exception of the new single, “California Songs”. Disappointingly, technical problems marred the performance of “High-Fivin’ MF”, a song clearly inspired by the portly gentleman who stood in front of me, wearing an unironic, post-reunion KISS shirt (“You’re just a walking billboard for all the latest brands / You’ve got no taste in music / And you really love our band”).
I was surprised, however, to see the warm reception of songs from last year No Fun EP, especially Lucas’ self-described “Neil Young thing” on a slowed-down, harmonica-aided “President Forever”. “My punk friends should love that,” Lucas said, “Actually, I only have one punk friend. The rest are poseurs.” But the crowd surely loved Lucas’ portrait of George W. as a snarky, egotistical cokehead. Where it not for the “I’m president forever…” bit, you could almost think the song had the same narrator as any other Local H song.
Unfortunately, the crowd really got up for the show’s worst moment, an absolutely inane, insufferable, and seemingly infinite encore version of “Fuck Yeah, That Wide” from the same EP. Long after St. Clair had left his drums behind, Lucas remained on stage, thrashing around and yelling the song’s charmingly didactic hook of “They got the money / We got the soul” over and over. Eventually, this morphed into a call and response with the audience, alternating between “we got the goddamn soul” and “we got the motherfucking soul”, but what could have been an unapologetic hard rock statement of innocence regained simply became irritating, as Lucas kept with the bit about ten minutes too long. Eventually, the enormous amount of feedback forced the soundman to cut off the guitar, but Lucas, undeterred, jacked a mic from the drums and continued.
Despite this protracted annoyance, though, I couldn’t helping rooting for Lucas as the Metro staff attempted to herd the kids out to make way for the late show that evening, which featured Squarepusher. Local H may not have the most original sound out there, owing an enormous debt to Nirvana, but as I watched the happy, sweaty, long-haired boys in hoodies shuffled out in favor of the bespectacled, black-clad baristas, I realized that a healthy sense of humor is a rare thing in rock ‘n’ roll these days, especially when grunge-influenced modern radio rock is concerned. So say what you like about Lucas and St. Clair: they’re not the prettiest, the loudest, or the most angst-ridden, but they got the motherfucking soul.