I ran across this pair of grunge-era comps the other day, and since I love a good comp I figured why not. Secretions was put out by C/Z Records in 1989 and features a dozen contemporary Seattle-area bands, while It’s the Water goes an hour or so south down I-5 to check in on the Olympia scene circa 1990. Of the 18 bands contributing to these comps I was familiar with some of them (Coffin Break, Crypt Kicker 5, Skin Yard, Dangermouse, and Fitz of Depression), but only in passing, so this is all pretty much new territory for me.
I thought I knew what I was getting from Secretions given that it was put out by C/Z – something a bit punk and edgy. But it turns out this has a much more indie bent than I was expecting. Of course if I’d read the subtitle of the album I might have been better prepared – A diverse collection of music from some of Seattle’s best-known independent bands. The key here is the word “diverse”, because it’s a bit genre-bending, which is a good thing.
Crypt Kicker 5’s “Shoot to Kill” is an excellent track, though one that seems to have gotten stuck in a time warp in 1982 and escaped it just in time to put this out at the close of the decade. It has strong flavors of post-punk-meets-new-wave, though a bit updated. H-Hour’s “Overlook” is similar in that it has that time traveling quality to it, the funky bass screaming early 1980s and the vocals channeling mid-1980s goth giving the whole thing a very To Live and Die In L.A. soundtrack feel. And lest you think these are criticisms, they most certainly are not, because both these songs are rad as hell. “Nevada” by Vertigo Bus is the other A side winner, coming at you like a gloomy, down-tuned Bangles song with fantastic harmonies to create two disparate sonic qualities, a collision between girl-band sweetness and being completely covered in all black clothing on the hottest day of the year gothiness.
The B side opens with Couch of Sound’s “Lousy in the Tropics”, which is the most unusual tune on Secretions. Musically it’s free jazz while vocally Amy Denio provides a surrealist scat delivery over the top. Coffin Break gives us the most straight-forward song, the pure punk rock “Just Say No (To Religion)” played in a less-angsty but still hardcore style. The side closes with the fairly preposterous funky western jam “Pony Song” by Fred; I wouldn’t want a whole album of that, but for one song it’s a blast.
The “indie” in the subtitle isn’t used in the same way as the rock subgenre we now know as “indie”. Instead it’s in the original sense of the term, short for independent, an independence both from major-label sales pressures and from the constraints of standard genre definitions. Almost every track on Secretions falls outside of the norm, and frankly that’s a good thing. Lest you think this is pure DIY though, keep in mind that the legendary Jack Endino produced most of these tunes so from a pure sound engineering standpoint it’s great – each band was given the opportunity to provide a high-quality recording of their particular style.
It’s the Water (1991 – though recorded in 1990)
When you think about what was happening musically in Olympia, Washington at this time, one naturally defaults to the stuff coming out on K Records like Beat Happening, The Go Team, and Some Velvet Sidewalk, stuff coming out of the permissiveness of the Evergreen State College environment. But there’s another Olympia that isn’t so radical. It has a more working class, almost small town vibe to it, and there were some other musical undercurrents happening there at the same time.
It’s the Water looks to capture that “other” Olympia. (♠) The songs area heavy, layered with influences from Sabbath and the Stooges and punk attitude. For my money Helltrout’s “Sex Death” is the big winner, weighty and dense with gargling-with-Jack-and-broken-glass vocals from Steve Helbert. Their second number (each of the six bands on It’s the Water contributed two songs) also bring the heavy while giving Helbert the opportunity to not torture his voice quite so much. Calamity Jane comes through as well with some Riot Grrrl edginess – (♣) “You Got It Rough” is a definite girl power anthem, while “Olympia” is a bit more experimental, especially in the vocals. Honorable mention to Fitz of Depression for “Beer 30” just cuz… it’s always Beer:30 somewhere.
(♠) To be fair, though, K Records’ Calvin Johnson is in the “Special Thanks To” credits, so I don’t want to imply there was some kind of class war happening among Olympia musicians, only that there was this entirely other scene happening that most people don’t know about.
(♣) OK, OK… so some of this could have been part of the K Records camp too. So sue me.