Listening to an album by the Melvins is very similar to having a long, meandering conversation with an old friend. You know their voice by heart, the inflections and rhythms that you could pick out of a noisy room even without being able to hear any specific words, but the conversation itself is anything but predictable. You go into it knowing that it might get pretty dark, even if there’s a lot of laughter involved, and while the stories you share might seem familiar, there’s always something just different enough to keep you interested. The one thing you can be certain of is that it’s going to get weird — and that’s the real beauty of it.
After three and a half decades together and more than 20 studio albums, the Melvins are adept at keeping that conversation going. Their latest release, Pinkus Abortion Technician, is a succinct eight song collection of originals and covers that somehow manages to sound way more cohesive than it should. This is not a seamlessly woven record by any means, but rather than sounding choppy or ill-conceived, it flows with a sense of nostalgia, like the mixtapes you made when you first started listening to the band, recording your favorites on your dual cassette deck, borrowing bits and pieces from your friends’ collections.
The Melvins are known for their bottom-heavy sound, and they amped that up on Pinkus Abortion Technician by throwing a second bass player into the mix. According to Melvins’ drummer Dale Crover, the band had “already done the two drummer thing and two guitarists,” so it made sense to try it out with two bass players next. The original idea, Crover told Glide, was to record a short EP featuring both Steven McDonald and Butthole Surfers’ alumnus Jeff Pinkus, and it evolved into a full-length album.
The standout track on Pinkus Abortion Technician is without a doubt “Embrace the Rub.” Kicking off with a snarling, “Yeah, dumbass” and wrapping up with the kind of agonized, growling scream that reminds you that the Melvins were a major inspiration for the grunge movement, “Embrace the Rub” is a short and frenetically melodic tune that begs to be played on repeat. The Melvins usually fall somewhere between metal and punk on the Official Bullshit Music Genre Spectrum, but this song — written by McDonald, originally with his band Off! in mind — proves that they’re still more than capable of swinging far to the punk side of things when the mood strikes.
“Don’t Forget to Breathe” is a brooding, bluesy, darkly psychedelic track featuring clever lyrics (“It feels so right when it feels like nothing’s left”) and a turn on the piano by Dale Crover alongside his hypnotic drum beat. The psychedelic vibe continues on “Flamboyant Duck,” a tune that wouldn’t have felt out of place keeping company with Blind Melon on the radio some 25 years ago.
Two of the songs on Pinkus Abortion Technician are covers of Butthole Surfers tunes. On “Graveyard,” the band wisely opted not to try and replicate the high trebley fuzz and signature distorted vocals of the original, instead retaining the slightly chaotic and surreal vibe under Buzz Osborne’s booming vocals and extending the instrumental end of the song until it’s almost trance-inducing — something we see also on “Flamboyant Duck” and “Don’t Forget to Breathe.” “Moving to Florida” gets a metal-tinged surf punk makeover, making up the second half of the album’s opening track, “Stop Moving to Florida.” The first half is a rendition of “Stop,” first made popular by Howard Tate in 1968. The R&B tune was reimagined by Hendrix in 1970 and later by James Gang, and that’s where the Melvins drew their inspiration for their version of the song. It’s an unlikely pairing with the Butthole Surfers, but one that works well in context.
An unexpected highlight of Pinkus Abortion Technician is the raucous rendering of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Everyone knows the Beatles’ original, but this is another one that found its way to the Melvins’ repertoire the long way around, Crover explains. “Our version is a cover of the cover by Moving Sidewalks, a band that Billy Gibbons [of ZZ Top] used to be in. I somehow got a copy of a Billy Gibbons bootleg and that was on there, and that’s where ours comes from.” Crover cites ZZ Top as a major influence on his own style and taste, and counts the band’s Tres Hombres among his top 20 favorite albums.
Crover’s 2017 solo release, The Fickle Finger of Fate, shows off some of his diverse musical taste. Crover plays the majority of the instruments on the record, and while it serves to showcase his versatility and skill as a drummer, it’s clear that he’s a talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter as well. Unlike some artists whose solo projects seem to simply be an extension of the music they play with their regular bands, Crover explores the more psychedelic and surreal corners of the musical world on Fickle Finger. Bits of it call to mind his early work with Kurt Cobain in their short-lived band, Fecal Matter; although it’s far more polished than the rough demos he recorded with Cobain, there’s a sense of letting go and just having a good time that’s evident on both Fickle Finger and the Fecal Matter’s sole recorded effort, Illiteracy Will Prevail.
I talked with Crover a little about his old friend Kurt, and what he was like back when they were just two guys hanging out, trying to make it in the music scene. “He was a really funny guy. A lot of people probably wouldn’t think that, but he was. He had a great sense of humor, but it was really dark too. I remember he had this apartment down the street, and I went over one day and he had this doll, like a toy doll hanging from a noose in his front window. He had it painted up with Alice Cooper makeup, just hanging there. And then one time he posed with this statue of Colonel Sanders, the KFC guy, with his hand on his crotch. He was like that, just funny…”
Crover and Cobain would play together off and on throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, with Crover contributing drums to songs that would later appear on Nirvana’s albums Bleach and Incesticide. But while Nirvana famously imploded when Cobain committed suicide in 1994, the Melvins seemed to only grow more solid as a band. Their formula for staying fresh and continually writing new material seems simple: “We’re good at coming up with stupid ideas and making them reality,” says Crover. And despite their collaborations with outspoken political activist Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, the Melvins do their best to keep politics out of their songs. “I think our personal politics might make it into a song once in a while, but we’re not a political band. I like to think that with everything going on in the world, we are an escape from all that — a breath of fresh air.” Pinkus Abortion Technician is exactly that: a breath of fresh air. In a world that seems intent on turning itself inside out, the Melvins remind us that there is still consistency amid all the chaos, and that sometimes what you really need is to crank up the music and let yourself live in the space between the amps.
Dale Crover is married with two children, and his advice to touring bands could come from any dad out there: “I think a lot of bands, when they talk about getting burned out on tour, it’s because they don’t sleep. It’s not like that for us, it’s not grueling. Buzz works really hard planning the tours so that we always have time to sleep in between shows, even when they’re back to back in different cities. We don’t get burned out. Go to bed, get some sleep, you’ll have plenty of energy in the morning.”