I sometimes wonder if musicians view their early work the way the rest of us do our high-school yearbook pictures. Shallow, the long out-of-print debut album by Philadelphia noise-punk band Pissed Jeans, was released in 2005 — hardly long enough ago to produce an embarrassed “what were we thinking?” kind of wince. Then again, rock ’n’ roll ages at a faster pace than just about anything else, so it’s not ridiculous to wonder how an album from the start of George W. Bush’s second term might sound this far into the Age of Obama.
The reason we even have a chance to find out is because Sub Pop, Pissed Jeans’ current home, has remastered and reissued Shallow, tacking on two songs from the band’s first single as a bonus. (The album first came out on the tiny Parts Unknown label.) So what’s the verdict? Not only does the album hold up, but in a crazy way it also provides an apt soundtrack for the fall of 2014. Shallow is a primal scream of a record, a jagged blast of spite and snotty humor. In other words, just about what we need at a time when the daily news cycle is full of beheadings, grainy domestic-violence footage and all kinds of other horrors. “I’m sick”! frontman Matt Korvette shrieks on the album’s opening track; he could easily be responding to the latest report on CNN.
In the Venn diagram of American guitar rock, Pissed Jeans occupies the spot where Mudhoney, the Melvins and the Jesus Lizard meet. The bristling riffs that rage all over Shallow somehow evoke metal, blues and punk without really sounding like any one of them. Guitarist Bradley Fry spits out squeals of feedback and sludgy chords that land like punches. He also demonstrates mastery of the whacked-out solo, as on the track “Wachovia”, which opens with an extended high-pitched guitar line that pierces your skull. “Boring Girls”, the album’s highlight and a song that could fit on any subsequent Pissed Jeans record, is driven by Fry’s growling, fuzzy chords.
Korvette, meanwhile, wails about bachelor-pad loneliness and the indignities of everyday life with howled vocals that recall Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and the Jesus Lizard’s David Yow. On some songs, Korvette screams so hard that your throat feels raw just listening to it. Elsewhere, his voice sounds muffled, as if an assailant were holding a gloved hand over his mouth. It’s a nicely unhinged performance.
As exhilarating as Shallow can be, it’s impossible not to notice as you listen that Pissed Jeans has improved quite a bit since making it. The band’s fantastic 2013 record, Honeys, packs just as noisy a punch, but its songs are tighter, more focused, and the album is better for it. Shallow, on the other hand, is the work of a band still figuring things out. It’s more apt to go for the easy joke, as in the song “Ashamed of My Cum”, or get lost in an over-extended jam, as in the tedious seven-minute track “Ugly Twin (I’ve Got)”. I should also note here that the two bonus tracks, “Throbbing Organ” and “Night Minutes,” barely hint at what Pissed Jeans can really do. Completists might appreciate their inclusion here, but they don’t add much to the record.
So yes, Shallow stands as an uneven first salvo from Pissed Jeans. But when it works, it makes a beautiful racket, indeed — the kind that gazes without blinking at the absurdity of the world and then smashes a guitar right on top of it.