My first exposure to the bizarre genius of U-Men came when I first tracked down a vinyl copy of the scene-setting C/Z Records comp. Deep Six back in the early 90s. I was a budding teenager then and, thanks to Nirvana, discovering what Poneman and Pavitt dubbed, with more than a hint of cynicism, “The Seattle Sound.” Deep Six – out in ’86, a good six years before the majors stormed the region – offered a great glimpse of the scene in its infancy: Green River, Melvins, Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, you get the idea. Weirdest among them was U-Men, a kind of art/garage rock that was to Washington’s mutants as Big Boys and Scratch Acid were then to the outcasts in Texas.
U-Men, from all accounts, lorded over Seattle for much of the 80s. In the words of Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm, “They ruled a bleak backwater landscape populated by maybe 200 people. They were the only band that could unify the disparate sub-subcultures and get all 200 of those people to fill a room.” After a brief run on Homestead, which later went the way of the buffalo, U-Men split and largely stayed anchored only in local lore – until today.
Today, Sub Pop released U-Men, a long-long-long-long-overdue, three-LP/two-CD collection reimagining everyone’s favorite Pacific Northwest avant-grunge band ruling Seattle as it was 30 years ago – before Singles, before Pearl Jam, before Nevermind. And, for fans of 80s punk or those wanting to trace the maturation of grunge as a concept, it is mighty, mighty good.
It’s easy to catalog the finest tracks on the set, which includes the band’s entire studio-recorded output – remastered – plus five unreleased songs, all of it curated by producer/guru Jack Endino. But what’s more important is the dressing. U-Men were punks at their roots – though Tom Price’s guitar flirts with Television as much as it does the grunginess of Green River – but they also had funky undertones, a bizarre sense of humor, and an audacious, scene-stealing frontman in John Bigley. These songs were less about movement – though there’s plenty of that – than they were about sound-painting. The bass bounces, the jagged guitar cuts and drums pound, and Bigley wails like a man possessed. And they sound like they’re having a fuckin’ blast doing it.
On the new set, there’s artsy, pre-grunge barn-burners (“They,” “Juice Party” and “U-Men Stomp”), rawk with hooks (“Last Lunch”), mood-transforming blues-rock that gently presages Price’s work with Monkeywrench (“Shoot ‘Em Down,” “Whistlin’ Pete”), Hype punk-centerpieces (the excellent “Dig It A Hole”), even Dead Milkmen-esque pop-punk before its time (“Blight”). And I’m sure I’m not including everyone’s favorites. That’s the point. The three-LP/two-CD set is exhaustive and it’s exhaustive for a reason – it’s stating an overwhelming case for considering U-Men as integral to the fabric of Seattle as The Sonics. And, listening to U-Men and being transported back to the first spin of that Deep Six comp., I think the case is a strong one.