You got to give Ed Crawford credit: the guy had guts. Whatever it was that drove him to talk Watt and Hurley into forming a new band, it couldn’t have been an easy sell. For one, when Crawford approached Hurley and Watt in 1986, the two players had just lost best friend D. Boon — frontman for their band, famous funk-punk act the Minutemen — the December before, and both were heartbroken. Watt had basically put music aside since. And beyond that, well, Crawford was trying to follow the Minutemen, one of the seminal punk bands. Period. Not to mention he had just taken up electric guitar shortly before posing the idea of a new band of Watt and Hurley.
But rather than try to leave the Minutemen behind, fIREHOSE was born as both a continuation and an homage to the band that came before it. It was a continuation in that Watt and Hurley took their funky sharp groove and pushed it into stranger realms over the band’s SST albums Ragin’, Full On, if’n, and Fromohio. Crawford, however, honored the memory of D. Boon by refusing to imitate it. Crawford’s voice was sweet, unassuming, his guitar playing straight-ahead and soft at the edges. He didn’t have Boon’s charming bark, or his scathing politics, or his razor-sharp guitar work. Instead, fIREHOSE was a tuneful yet off the wall rock band, one prone to experiments and a funky thump, but over the course of their career they steered toward down-the-pike rock ‘n roll — at least in their way.
But despite all the indie aesthetic around fIREHOSE and their ilk in the ’80s, the band truly hit their peak when they signed to Columbia and released 1991’s Flyin’ the Flannel. This new collection, lowFLOWs: The Columbia Anthology (’91-’93), collects that album with the Live Totem Pole EP and 1993’s mr. machinery operator — along with some extras — to show the band’s creative peak and their eventual break up. But even if there’s an ending to this story — or an ellipses, rather, since they’re back out touring — lowFLOWs is still a great rock ‘n roll story, the story of musicians pushing on in the face of heartbreak and finding new sounds, new music, and new creative heights.
Flyin’ the Flannel is a wildly eccentric album for a major-label debut, and it actually predates Nirvana’s Nevermind — similarly, the album includes a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow” before Cobain donned his famous Johnston t-shirt — so they’re not another band falling into a trend. Instead, what this scattershot album reveals is the sound of a unique band using major-label backing not to sand down its strangeness but rather to hone it. Even if the songs are all over the place, the fidelity and sharper musicianship trumps most of their solid output on SST. The album opens with Mike Watt throwing down the gauntlet with a mean bass line on “Down With the Bass”, which Hurley backs with equally bracing percussion. Here, and on much of the record, Crawford’s guitar acts as a link between Watt and Hurley, since he’s often mixed lower than the bass, and so his ringing chords fill out the space and his voice booms over it all, albeit with a crooner’s ease.
Crawford does sometimes step out into the spotlight as a player, on the cascading notes of the title track or his moody notes rolls on “Too Long”, but mostly he finds himself brilliantly falling in step with his fellow players. Watt’s notes rise and fall over Hurley’s off-kilter beat on “Toolin'” while Crawford quick-strums some funky chords. “O’er the Town of Pedro” is a fiery charge, with Hurley propelling the band out of a funky sway into a hard sprint, and Watt filling every spare hole in the song with complex bass lines. The album isn’t without its strange experiments — see the shout-sung “Anti-Misogynist Maneuver” or the edgy confusion of riffs that is “Tien An Man Dream Again” — but for the most part it’s an album that explores variations on the same funk-rock theme. It’s got some California sun to it and though the songs get hard they are rarely sharp. If the band was sketching out their path on their less cohesive SST records, this one made the pieces adhere together as much as a band with this many ideas going at once could.
By mr. machinery operator, though, the band had been going for seven years, and while they had become a smoother, more cohesive unit over the years, there are moments where you can feel them straining for and not quite getting to new ground. Live Totem Pole EP, which actually preceded mr. machinery operator, is a strangely dated document now, in that it must have felt more fresh — with of-the-moment covers of Superchunk and Butthole Surfers — when it was released. What it does do, though, is prime us for the next album by showing not only the band’s far-flung influences, but also by just how much they’ve grown as a unit, since the playing on Live Totem Pole EP is uniformly excellent.
What mr. machinery operator does, though, is shift the focus from funky thump to punishing riffs. Producers were key to fIREHOSE, and after Paul Q. Kolderie buffed their strange groove to a nice shine on Flyin’ the Flannel, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis tried to muscle it up a bit. You can feel his presence all over the record — he plays on it too — and it’s most prevalent on the guitar shred of “Blaze” and the spacey hooks of “Powerful Hankerin'”. These songs are much more carefully built, and given more time to develop — ten songs here clock in over 3-minutes, a far cry from the brevity of Flyin’ the Flannel — and as a result we get to hear Crawford’s now refined guitar work adding its own textures and Hurley’s work on the drums stretches out and gets huge here. If he was all tense, syncopated speed before, here he gets more textural, and Watt’s thrilling with his bass work gets to rumble farther here, matching the size of those drums beat for beat.
But as thrilling as the best moments of mr. machinery operator are, there are others that feel forced. The “quote” and “unquote” that are spoken around the drum solo of “More Famous Quotes” feels unnecessary and borderline pretentious, and the brief “Number Seven” feels like a step back for the band into simpler instrumentation they had outgrown by 1993. The crushing guitar work of “4.29.92” may be fiery and energetic, but it also never quite builds to anything more than a louder moment on a plenty loud record. For a band this willful and exploratory, oddity or eccentricity should never seem forced, and in these moments it does.
Still, it’s a solid last record from a band that almost never existed in the first place. It carries on the tradition of the Minutemen — this collection, like much of fIREHOSE’s work, is dedicated to D. Boon — and takes that sound in a new, singular, and fascinating direction. The extra stuff on lowFLOWs paints fIREHOSE as a band all about the instruments — since instrumental versions of “Down With the Bass” and “Blaze”, as well as unreleased live cuts, shine — but they were not just about that. It was about the legend of D. Boon, about twisting the Minutemen into something new. But it was also about Ed Crawford. About a new voice pushing a great rhythm section to do something new. For the all the complaining about the vapid nature of major-label music, the story of fIREHOSE is about as genuine and compelling as it gets. Crawford wasn’t the only author of that story, but he put the pen to paper.