Will someone hurry up and release something already? The pre-Christmas deluge of awfulness followed by the post-New Year hangover means that it feels like ages since anything of any quality has come out. This should all pick up a bit soon enough though, as the first gig of the year comes this Saturday, and with any luck the first anticipated release should follow a couple of days afterwards. And then it all seems to get a bit mad.
Anyway, I have a couple of recent ones still here, but as I’m still dragging myself into this year with all the enthusiasm of a teenager being asked to do anything, I thought I’d have a delve back into the archives. This (as has been the case for a while here) usually starts off with me trying to think of something, then failing miserably. And then I go and do something else and forget all about it. Then, there are times like today when I’m really under a dark cloud and something pops up on the old shuffle that just triggers memory after memory and reminds me why I started doing this bloody thing in the first place. Oomalama is a prime example of this – probably not heard it in years, put it on my iPod on a whim, and up it popped. And it’s 1991 all over again…
December 1991, in fact. Nirvana were playing in Manchester, and I can remember next to nothing about the headliners. Not sure why this should be the case, although I suspect that I may well have been a bit drunk (it’s been known to happen from time to time, apparently). What I do remember are the support acts: Shonen Knife – who remain to this day, the most happily polite punk band I have ever witnessed – and Captain America. The latter was the new project of Eugene Kelly’s after the Vaselines ended and I was hooked from the start, thanks to a general sound that had both the jangly pop of the UK’s then-healthy indie scene and the more rough ‘n’ ready, caustic edge of the US Northwestern bands that were then emerging. I still have the long-sleeved T-Shirt of theirs that I bought at this show, although I remain at a loss as to what sort of arms the manufacturer had in mind when they made them, as it’s more like a straitjacket.
Anyway, two EPs later and the band have changed their name with thanks to the legal attentions of Marvel Comics (as well as naff clothing chain C&A for a bit of logo-impersonation on the 2nd EP, Flame On), and Eugenius come up with as fine a slice of noisy yet tuneful indie as I can recall. It does start a bit odd, the nonsensical album title chanted over a bit of a drone before the sunny chorus of “Hiya, I’m alive and back again!” brightens the song up before rinsing and repeating. It begins in earnest with (sensibly enough, I suppose) Breakfast, unhurried and airy, with Eugene’s charmingly languid vocals laid over guitars that alternately remind me of early REM and Teenage Fanclub (whose drummer appears here and there). One’s Too Many afterwards turns everything up a few notches, a fun punky number clocking in at two and a half minutes that sounds as much fun to play as it is to listen to. And this in turn is followed by the laid-back Bed-In, a song ostensibly about getting up for a bit and then going back to bed.
It has to be said that Oomalama is a bit of a ramshackle affair: the two EPs the preceded this album are represented here in their majority (only God Bless Les Paul from their debut is missing from the longest version of this album, no idea if he sued as well), scattered randomly throughout. Different recording sessions are well in evidence, with tracks varying in sound and balance throughout. Then again, I don’t care about any of that, as that all adds to the fun of it all as well as shifting the focus firmly on the song as it’s meant to be heard – raw and with as little polish as possible.
The exception to the rule to all of this comes with Hot Dog, a rather sad and very bitter song that builds patiently and plaintively, lone voice and guitar joined by violin and sparing harmonies and while it never becomes huge in scope, it brings its own heartbreaking crescendos before finishing, perhaps fittingly, rather suddenly. It’s a very odd song on the surface of the record, but it does fit thanks in no small part to the song that immediately follows: Down On Me is also bitter and self-reproachful, but with an edge to it that fans of Eugene’s most famous supporter will immediately recognise from the “Jesus, take my life from me” opening line and whole angry – yet controlled – structure of the whole song. These two songs form the strongest part of the whole album and close side 1 brilliantly.
Side 2 opens with similar aplomb, their second EP’s title track Flame On being perfect for Oomalama’s reintroduction for those who remember the good old days when one had to stand up at least once to listen to an album properly. Reminiscent of the Screaming Trees of the time in terms of big riffs, beating the drumkit to within an inch of its life and still remaining rather relaxed about the whole thing, it heralds a second half that is somewhat more straightforward than the last one. If I remember rightly (because frankly I’m far too comfy to be wandering round in the attic with a torch to find out), the album finishes – again, sensibly enough – the hugely-harmonised Bye Bye, with this here CD containing another three tracks, not least a stunner of a cover of Beat Happening’s Indian Summer.
I’m not sure why this album isn’t held in higher regard when the curators of that age harp on about legacies and classics and zeitgeists. Maybe the enforced name change as they were establishing themselves meant that potential fans fell off before they could get a grip. Maybe they were too noisy and unkempt for a UK audience becoming increasingly enamoured with Madchester or (eeww) Britpop. Maybe they weren’t noisy enough for Sub Pop and what was coming out of the Pacific Northwest. Or maybe it was just a general “falling between everyone’s stools” that meant that Eugenius seem to be a bit of a namedropped afterthought for many. Songwriting such as this is a rare gift (as Eugene has also shown previous and subsequently), and the influences both brought in and shared out make for an utterly charming record and a great way to kill an evening reminiscing about bands that I barely remember seeing, but can at least remember how I felt about it all.