The Melvins go way back, all the way to the mid-‘80s and the pre-history of Grunge. Drummer Dale Crover played on Nirvana’s Bleach, Kurt Cobain produced their album Houdini, and the Melvins were reputedly Cobain’s favorite band, so it makes sense that The Crybaby, part three of the trilogy that also includes The Maggot and The Bootlicker, kicks off with a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The surprise is that the vocalist is Leif Garret, the “felonious ‘70s teen idol,” to use The Melvins’ description. It’s a fairly straight cover, and Leif turns out to be a capable singer, which makes this one of the least adventurous songs on a very adventurous album.
What’s most remarkable about The Crybaby is that, despite the fact that every song is a collaboration, the album holds together well. Granted, most of the guest artists possess aesthetics similar to the Melvins. David Yow of the Jesus Lizard takes guest turns behind the mike for two thrashers, “Blockbuster” and “Dry Drunk.” Australian punk genius J.G. Thirlwell performs “Mine is No Disgrace,” one of the slow, thundering dirges for which the Melvins are famous. “Spineless,” the cut with Skeleton Key, a self-proclaimed “garbage” band whose percussionist, Rick Lee, actually plays garbage, makes excellent use of yesterday’s trash. However, in addition to the Garret experiment, there is also a version of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man” sung by his grandson. Even stranger is Hank Williams III’s cover of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” but if anybody asks, the answer is: Hell, yes, the Melvins can play country music.
Their garage band credentials notwithstanding (and what band doesn’t start out in a garage?), it helps a great deal that the boys are indeed fine musicians. In addition to Crover on drums, the other original member is Buzz Osborne on guitar and vocals; they are joined by Kevin Rutmanis, the latest in a series of bassists. Their musicianship is highlighted on two very long numbers, which follow in the great Melvins’ tradition of playing as though the radio single never existed. “Divorced” is a 14-minute mostly instrumental collaboration with Tool. By turns heavy and even a little funky, there’s enough nuance to maintain interest throughout. “The Man with the Laughing Hand Is Dead,” 11 minutes of sitar, musical saw and treated vocals—a drone in the VU tradition—is less varied. “Moon Pie,” the album’s final track, played with Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp, has too much extra-musical material—found noises, found voices—and makes for a disappointing close.
There’s plenty of Fuck-You-If-You-Don’t-Like-It attitude to go around, though, naturally, the band has paid for it: their stint on Atlantic seems ages ago, and even Amphetamine Reptile is history. (They can now be found at www.ipecac.com.) But who cares, really? These guys are prolific—there’s plenty more where this came from—and fans of earlier albums won’t be disappointed by The Crybaby. Two cheers for the Melvins for reminding us that punk comes in more than one shade of black.