It is a rainy November night in Seattle, and I am tooling north on I-5 with an old college pal, a wacky artist who nails canvas on the walls, and spinning around the room on roller skates and carrying a paint gun, executes four masterpieces simultaneously.
“Listen to this.” I pop the cd I just received in the mail into the drive. It’s the Salt Lake City band, Up Yer Sleeve’s 1998 release, Deceptive Little Sweets. There’s a pause as the machine shifts into action. Then we hear the first few guitar licks of the opening melody “Skeletons,” and my friend says, “Sounds like Jerry Garcia.” Then as lead vocalist Gail Krug’s slinky- sweet, tough girl voice takes over, he says, “and that reminds me of—”
“Jefferson Airplane,” we intone together.
At the first instrumental bridge he says, “And that, that right there – that sounds like what’s-his-name.”
“Knopfler,” I suggest.
“Mark Knopfler! Exactly! Is the rest of it like this?”
Well, no. The songs are all different from one another. But my guess is that if you listen to this cd, you’ll find yourself thinking just like my friend and me.
Resembling the music of the sixties and seventies that informs these tunes, the selections are various and exciting, the musicianship solid, and the live- performance sound refreshing. Krug, herself, wrote most of these songs, and many of them have the tight, smoky atmosphere of a basement tavern with a linoleum floor, and the in-your-face feeling of musicians met by an audience at close terms. This is the kind of band for whom a nightclub venue is perfect, and when we listen to this cd it’s where we want to be.
Several of the pieces are real standouts. There is no denying the catchiness of a tune like “Marshmallow.” “Marshmallows, baby, are deceptive little sweets/We can burn you real badly when exposed to too much heat.” Yes, you can. The aforementioned “Skeletons” contains the sharp musicality that distinguishes the genre called “classic” rock. Others, notably “Avalanche Wind,” “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” written by Tom Krug and “Drifting,” have the brave, world- weary tone that might be considered trademark of Krug’s work; that is, it might be if we had more to go on. With only the cd here under discussion, and three more singles available for listening on line, it seems to be too early to make assertions. Still, we see her frequently making claims against her vulnerability.
One track that draws my attention is “Child.” This is the type of composition that can sound preachy to an audience, but that the composer himself invariably loves because it gives honest expression to outrage, to negative emotions atypical of successful popular music. Examples that come to mind are Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” In this piece, Krug seems to be addressing both one child who suffers from social ostracism, and also all children who undergo similar trials: “Child of rape â€¦ child of color â€¦ child of true diversity â€¦ savior of the human race.”
Another track I enjoy is “Better By Now,” partly because of the gentle harmonies that explore rather than insist upon the melody, and partly because of the lyric, which addresses the joylessness of addictive behavior. The piling up of “I should know”s is pleasing, hypnotic, and the logic is irrefutable. Even the rush itself becomes stupid after awhile, the speaker tells us.
At notable variance with all of these tracks is the piece composed by Duke Bonnell and performed by band member Tom Krug. “Finish Us Off” is a country-rock talk- song that might easily be sorted among humorous tomes such as Johnny Cash’s ” A Boy Named Sue,” or Pure Prairie League‘s “I’ll Fix Your Flat Tire, Merle.” Krug, after drawing up a lengthy list of comparisons with the current human condition, such as the Biblical story of the luckless Job, or the fate of a young deer hit by a truck (trust me, this is funnier than it sounds), suggests that the Lord should simply put us out of our misery “Bring on the earthquakes, famines, floods and plagues/Haul out the big guns. We’ll wrap it up in seven days/Why don’t you finish us? Finish us off.”
Up Yer Sleeve’s Deceptive Little Sweets breaks no new ground, musically speaking. In fact, in some ways it’s very much throwback music, and familiarity is the source of the comfort and joy we feel in it. It bespeaks an era of certain innocence in the blues-rock genre. These are the songs you’ve never heard, but already know.