In the giddy throes of the ’90s alternative rock revival, few have benefited in the serotonin department more than me. With shameless Pavlovian accuracy, the mere mention of certain bands turn this here thirtysomething grumpus into a big softy. I’m a cash poor connoisseur of the period, practically a scavenger by unflattering definition, with an unhealthy attraction to what’s on those scratched, smudged, and yet, perennially shiny plastic circles most decent people have had the good sense to unburden themselves of in the digital age. From the A&R labors of love that never quite made it to the rock stars that still fill arena seats, all of it still means more to me than anything should. Perhaps to justify my obsessions, I even started a modestly attended monthly club night at a friend’s bar here in New York like some sort of sentimental yet scowling facsimile of Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming character.
Thankfully, the assembly line of reunions big (Afghan Whigs! Soundgarden!) and small (Bailter Space! Hammerhead!) have also brought forth a steady trickle of upstarts with glaringly obvious ’90s influences. Some, such as Jesus And Mary Chain karaoke act Ringo Deathstarr, serve as cheaper over-the-counter generic alternatives to the lapsed patents of far superior forebears. Others, like Yuck, attempt to build on what came before. If nothing else, Unnatural Helpers at least try.
Produced by Kurt Bloch of The Fastbacks and (allegedly, more recently) Full Toilet, Land Grab marks this Seattle quartet’s second full-length outing with Hardly Art, the homelier Sub Pop sibling with the great personality that shares the still seminal indie’s distribution and publicity machine. A bit at times like hometown heroes Mudhoney without the grit and musk, Unnatural Helpers play that sort of peppy garage rock that comes and goes every CMJ and SXSW of late.
Despite the uncharacteristic ten-minute closer “Julie Jewel”, a barn-burning jam drenched in kerosene horns and littered with combustible falsettos, the songs hardly ever brush up against the two-minute mark. Herky jerky scorchers like “Hate Your Teachers”, “I Trust It Hurts” and “You’re Right” demonstrate the band’s fuzz pedal moshpit bona fides and align Unnatural Helpers with the Pacific Northwest’s radical misunderstood misfit class of ’91. Here, vocalist-slash-drummer Dean Whitmore most resembles Mark Arm, and though he never succumbs to mere mimicry, some appropriation of his spiritual predecessor’s unhinged animalism wouldn’t exactly hurt in places.
While those might be the most instantly gratifying cuts, the band have other dimensions on earnest display here. Not unlike quasi-labelmates Male Bonding, Unnatural Helpers clearly harbor some deep seated feelings towards Cheap Trick’s brand of power pop, as evinced on “Walk” and the breezy “Stiff Wind”. Even curiouser, the delightful “Waiting Girl” feels much like something Syl Sylvain or Johnny Thunders might have recorded for one of their post-New York Dolls outings, albeit more polished.
Bloch also worked with Unnatural Helpers on 2010’s Cracked Love & Other Drugs, a record which also mixed raucous blasts of raw power with poppier moments. The balance, however, seems to have tipped more towards the latter with Land Grab, which some might succinctly summarize as progression. However, the titular implications suggest something much more urgent for a band three albums into a career. Looking critically at the countless also-rans of the ’90s, legitimate existential questions are bound to arise. Are Unnatural Helpers on the way in or the way out? Land Grab makes a reasonable case for the group’s right to exist, but not a wholly compelling one.