Billed as a companion piece to 2002’s Fed, Underfed might actually serve better as an introduction to that album, which heretofore was officially released on CD only in Japan. The Underfed sessions actually date back to 1999-2000 and give the listener a chance to experience the “less is more” version of the final tracks, which were given a healthy dose of orchestration in the intervening two years. The project itself was somewhat notorious in that, according to legend, the record took almost seven years and apparently as much as six figures worth of mastermind Liam Hayes’ own money to create. Being that the album was never officially released in the US, the notoriety of these sessions is certainly in question to everyone except the neighbors of various Chicago studios. For those not in the know, Hayes’ credits go back to Viva Last Blues-era Palace and, before Fed, Plush’s official catalog included the 1994 “Three-Quarters Blind Eyes” b/w “Found a Little Baby” single and the largely solo 1998 Drag City affair More Becomes You. For the Fed sessions, Hayes assembled a crack team of musicians and producers in order to create something special. Whether or not those sessions produced anything special is a matter of taste. Some found the material annoyingly crushed beneath the weight of its orchestration and others found the proceedings to be, well, special. Chances are if you’re a fan of the early ’70s piano banging of guys like Lennon, Newman, and Nilsson then you’re going to find something to like on this record.
If you ignore the album’s tarnished legacy and get down to brass tacks there are some highly memorable performances here, chief among them are two tracks in particular: “I’ve Changed My #” and “Greyhound Bus Station”. Despite being a “rough mix”, “I’ve Changed My #” still packs an orchestration umphh worthy of the Rockettes. This burlesque swagger makes for a charming listen, and really cuts through Hayes’ tendency to meander musically and lyrically. “Greyhound Bus Station” starts with a cool mellotron run and then commences with a full-on hippie rollin’ Grateful Dead impersonation. It’s got one of those cool late-’60s bass lines that John Stirrat over at Wilco makes so popular these days. The chorus brings in a little understated orchestration to seal the whole brain-sticking deal. But these two are by no means the only good tracks. The long, fuzzy guitar bends of the opener “Whose Blues” make for some quirky, boozy fun and the almost solo and very Lennon “Blown Away” provides a stripped down intimacy that’s as relieving as it is necessary.
The problem comes with the deliberate pace of much of the album’s second half. The spy movie quiver of “No Education” builds to a strong climax, but similar tracks like “Sound of S.F.” and “Born Together” are somewhat overwrought. What’s even more disappointing is that “Whose Blues Anyway”, “What’ll We Do”, and “Having it All” are almost boring, while the ten minute organ workout of “Fed Intro” is downright aggravating given the exciting possibilities of its beginning. “Fed” picks up the pace just a little bit, but it stills fails to deliver on the album’s early promise. Unfortunately for Hayes and the rest of us, a handful of great tracks does not a classic make. Maybe this release will pave the way for some new material under the Plush moniker, but the verdict is still out on whether or not it will be worth the wait.