One of the most pleasing and incongruous sights of the last few years was Smegma’s Oblivia staring out from the cover of The Wire on countless newsstands, her wicked smile hinting at the basement guile and untrammeled delight in play of her parent group’s 30-plus-years output. Smegma have always been one of the underground’s most intriguing propositions, given their stamina and singularity, though ‘intriguing’ is a pretty inadequate epithet to land on an outfit so uncontained and pure in concept and execution.
If Live 2004! proves anything, it’s that Smegma have always rocked – they just do it differently than everyone else who’s ever had a dalliance with that term. Indeed, they generally don’t treat rock as a genre so much as a physical descriptor: Smegma’s music sounds like it’s constantly swaying back and forth on its 14 unsteady legs, woozy from possibility. That the first half of this disc, recorded in California in November ’04 with an intro from the inescapable Jello Biafra and guest spots from the Stooges’ Steve Mackay, features plenty of grunt and surprisingly few patches of the kind of splatter-fest improv-stew the group are often aligned with, proves they’ve got more than enough going for them should they get the call to be the bar band of the damned.
By the time of “Hot Rod,” from an Oakland show, they’ve managed to merge the two pretty nicely – imagine the Shaggs gone rockabilly with a wildly drunk and off-beam Kluster setting controls for the heart of the single malt. “Flutes & Toys” is a programmatically-titled slab of free thought, the clutter of the toys’ percussive clatter filling your ears with so much lateral movement you’re unable to map your way through the audio space. If this were on Sublime Frequencies, geeks across the world would be drooling over it.
After this, Smegma fight their way through a wildly punk, brutish take on Roky Erickson’s “John Lawman,” and the mangled tapes and dials of the sea-sick “Outro.” For a committed Smegma fan this stuff is no revelation, but you still walk from the listening experience convinced that a Smegma gig, in its balancing of rock and noise, is the perfect blast to kick your more serious avant-schmuck friend out of their blinkered complacency. I’d just hoped the “Jello Intro” had more to do with the substance, and less to do with the individual.