Sunday, 11 August 2013

Weak - Seaweed

My first encounter with Seaweed came about during a period in my musical taste that is by no means individual to me. Since Nirvana's Nevermind became a touchstone of modern music in 1991, it seems almost every teenager with a passing interest in rock, goes through a phase of listening primarily to grunge. Nirvana's influence is so lasting that kids that never even shared a planet with Kurt Cobain are still wearing t-shirts with his face on. I for one made sure I had all their albums and singles and any bootlegs I could get my hands on. This, of course, failed to satisfy the record collector in me and as I looked further into Nirvana's history I decided to pick up any records I could find by other bands on the Sub Pop label (Nirvana's first home). Amongst 7 inches by Gas Huffer and B-sides collections by Mudhoney, I found Seaweed's single Bill.

For the first few years of Sub Pop's 25 year history, they dealt solely in grunge. Luckily for them, there was very little stylistically that linked grunge bands together. Loud, fuzzy guitar rock from Seattle seemed to be the only criteria a band needed to meet before being labeled grunge. Despite the differences in style and substance between the bands, there was something about the Bill single that struck me as completely different from anything else I'd heard from Sub Pop. Bill was a great Pop-Punk song and the band's cover of Wwax's Pumpkin (which was originally released on Seaweed bass player John Atkins' Leopard Gecko label) was so convincing, it could have easily been a Seaweed original. What really caught my attention though, was the third and final track. Squint: The Killerest Expression. A remix by producer Steve Fisk, The Killerest Expression was a bizarre, avant garde track that took samples from one of the band's album cuts and turned it into a whole new animal.
      My friends, who were understandably growing weary of my preoccupation with bands that by that point were 10 or 12 years gone, laughed at my enthusiasm for this strange b-side. Nevertheless I made an effort to track down every other Seaweed record I could find, scouring the secondhand record shops of London for albums and EPs. It wasn't until about 4 years after hearing that initial single, however, that I finally got to hear the original version of Squint. On holiday in Vancouver (as close as I've come to Seattle) I ended up, as I do on most trips, spending some time in a local record store. I'd managed to find all of Seaweed's albums, with the exception of the second one, in London, so I was thrilled to find Weak (on marbled green vinyl no less) in a wonderful secondhand record shop. It had all the hallmarks of a Sup Pop record of the era. The coloured vinyl, the serifed font and a great live photo by Charles Peterson (who took some of the most famous photos of Seattle's rock bands and who's photo essay on grunge is well worth reading).
      Back in the UK I got to play the record for the first time and I immediately skipped to the the last track, Squint. I was prepared to be disappointed. I'd built it up for years and was preparing myself for a letdown. What if the basis for The Killerest Expression was just a 2 minute, 3 chord mess? The let down never came. I delighted in picking out the samples from the remix and found new parts of the song to love. Strangely, the middle-eight of the song is not a million miles away from the one in the Wwax song that the band covered on the Bill single. Hearing the song as it was originally intended didn't diminish my appreciation for the remix either. It just gave me a whole new way to listen to it.
      Despite it's title, Weak is one of Seaweeds strongest albums and arguably its most well loved. The second of a three album run on Sub Pop, it was produced by Jack Endino, most renowned for producing Nirvana's first album. There is something about this album that stands apart from other Endino produced, Sub Pop released albums though. It's still distorted guitar rock but its not as slow, not as menacingly shambolic. Perhaps it's because Seaweed were emerging in 1992, after the Seattle scene was already a national entity and they had to stand out from the crowd, but their sound is much faster than a lot of Seattle's output. In the thorough history of punk rock in Seattle, “Everybody Loves Our Town” by Mark Yarm, there is a discussion on the huge influence that the second side of My War by Black Flag had on the bands in the northwest of America. A huge change of style for the hardcore giants, side B of the album was slow and heavy. If that album is as big an influence as the book says, I think perhaps the guys in Seaweed never got past the first side. 
      There is definitely a hardcore punk influence to the album though. The intro to Recall is obviously derived from years of listening to LA punk bands as and when they ventured north up the coast. But hardcore thrash soon gives way to a more melodic, yet still energetic approach. Seaweed's sound is more akin to a band like Superchunk (who they toured with) than any of the big name grunge bands. Yet they were heavier sounding than most college rock bands of the era. Punk Rock but with more substance and style than your standard three chord hair-gel band and vocals that aren't so much sung as shouted melodically (not that vocalist Aaron Stauffer is unable to sing). 
     That said, there isn't a lot of stylistic variation on Weak. Seaweed found a sound that suited them almost perfectly and decided to stick with it. Though Fastbacks' singer Kim Warnick adds a whole new dimension to Baggage (a live performance of which can be heard very briefly in the brilliant Seattle music documentary Hype!) there isn't any changing of instrumentation or approach on any other track, though why change a winning formula? Clean Slate is a fine example of how well this melodic but considered approach to punk rock can work, proving that when it comes to punk melodic doesn't always have to mean softer or less self-aware.
      Seaweed's next album Four (though only their third) eschewed their more hardcore influences whilst still maintaining the majority of their punk edge. It would be their last for Sub Pop though as they went down the path of many a band from Seattle and signed with a major. After just one album on Hollywood records, they were back on an indie label, this time signing to Mac McCaughan's Merge Records (completing the circle started with the release of Wwax's Pumpkin single). They were never a stadium filling band, but Seaweed amassed a solid catalogue over their decade of existence and even had a song featured on the soundtrack to Clerks. Their influence is also quite clear on other bands and as little as two years after the release of Weak, you can hear strong elements of Seaweed's sound in bands like Farside. They may not have conquered the world like Nirvana or Pearl Jam but I have never heard another track quite like Squint: The Killerest Expression.

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