In 1983, the idea of the Melvins protracting their sludgy weirdness over more than three decades probably sounded like a bridge too far, even for the members themselves. But time has made a fool of us all. Not only are Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover, and the band’s rotating cast of characters still at it, in 2016 they’re arguably more alive and fruitful than they’ve been at any point previously in their career. A quick look at the statistics pretty much says it all. With the long-delayed release of Three Men and a Baby, the Melvins have released six records in as many years, excluding a seventh that’s on the way later this year.
Credit for the band’s longevity is due in no small part to its restless sense of reinvention. Tar-thick riffage, bizarre lyrics, and Crover’s punishing, deliberate drumming have long been cornerstones of the Melvins’ musical equation. They still are. But in recent years, that well-honed formula has gotten more than a few different looks, thanks to Osborne and Crover’s willingness to play within their own sound. They’ve collaborated with the Big Business boys to double down on the heaviness. They’ve utilized a stand-up bass to repurpose their catalog as Melvins Lite. On 2013’s Tres Cabrones, they moved Crover to bass and welcomed back original drummer Mike Dillard. It’s been a treat for fans to watch Osborne and Crover throw curveballs this far into their career instead of slipping into staid convention.
Three Men and a Baby might technically be the Melvins’ latest stab at repurposing through collaboration, but it’s actually one of its earliest. Using godheadSilo‘s Mike Kunka as their creative foil, both sides first put their noisy, metal minds together in 1999. The idea of a Melvins record with two bassists (Kunka and then-Melvins bassist Kevin Rutmanis) promised big returns, but for reasons still largely unknown, Three Men and a Baby sat on the shelf. In a release from Sub Pop Records, the band comically blames the delay on seemingly everything, including (but not limited to) whooping cough, surgery, stolen gear, and “typical record label skulduggery.” Whatever the reason, Three Men and a Baby has been released at long last. But is it worth the wait?
The band seemed to have picked a kindred spirit in Kunka, but Three Men and a Baby doesn’t deliver in the same “great meeting of the minds” way that records like 2014’s Hold It In (recorded with Paul Leary and Jeff Pinkus of the Butthole Surfers) or 2010’s The Bride Screamed Murder (featuring Big Business) did. All told, it’s a mixed bag overstuffed with good tracks, bad ones, and others that aren’t really either. Not surprisingly, the record’s best moments come when it leans closer to the Melvins’ dense metal drudgery. “Chicken ‘N’ Dump” leads off in that familiar fashion, while the low bass and skull-crushing drums that drive “Gravel” sound as brute here as they do on classic records like Houdini or Bullhead. Kunka, meanwhile, leaves his mark on crankier, noise rock-inspired numbers like “Annalisa”, which does a commendable job of exploring the shared musical space between both acts.
More than anything else, Kunka and the Melvins are linked by their mutual appreciation for weird, oddball rock and roll. You would think that shared willingness to go out on a creative limb would make for the record’s best moments. Unfortunately those moments are reduced largely to filler. “A Dead Pile of Worthless Junk”, with its haunting, jibberish vocals and macabre soundscapes, certainly delivers on eerie ambiance, but it’s hardly the stuff worth waiting around 17 years for. The same can be said for “A Friend In Need Is A Friend You Don’t Need”, which save for Crover’s unusually expansive, Buddy Rich-like drumming, is at its heart a throwaway joke track.
Simply put, a Melvins record is always going to be interesting. They’re too unique and willing to take musical chances for their records not to be. But that isn’t to say they can’t miss just slightly left of he mark in their exploits. The Melvins like to take chances with their music, and here’s to hoping they keep swinging adventurously. Three Men and a Baby just happens to be one such experiment that doesn’t land with the blunt force fans might be used to.
Essential Tracks: “Chicken ‘N’ Dump”, “Gravel”