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Artist: Bitch Magnet

Album: Bitch Magnet

Label: Temporary Residence

Review date: Feb. 6, 2012


Bitch Magnet - "Douglas Leader" (Bitch Magnet)


I remember one distant autumn entering the Oberlin College student union to pick up my mail and my freshman eyes spotted a flier that read: “Your band sucks, your band sucks, your band sucks … Bitch Magnet.” A band whose name came from the back cover of a Big Black album? I was in. Cut to today and, as if out of the blue, Jon Fine (the guitarist who co-founded the band with bassist/vocalist Sooyoung Park) penned a brief piece on rock and hearing loss for The Atlantic. What could sum up more crisply the passage of time?

Much to my delight, said flier is reproduced (along with tons of other fliers and photos) in the capacious booklet accompanying this lovingly assembled comprehensive three-disc edition of the band’s complete works: the Star Booty EP, Umber, the mighty Ben Hur, and some odds and sods including remixes and alternate recordings. Most folks even vaguely interested in what came in the 1990s to be called “math rock” or “post-hardcore” (among other vague categories that populated during that decade) are already loosely familiar with Bitch Magnet. But I always got the sense that (my Oberlin homerism aside) they were far too under the radar for a band so accomplished.

The Star Booty-plus disc starts off with some aggressive alternate versions of some of Umber’s best tracks, notably a grinding “Punch and Judy.” And even listening to the band’s earliest materials, you can appreciate their mix of power and subtlety. They were less showy about their polyrhythms and layered tempi than some of their contemporaries and followers, and a lot of this is due to Orestes Morfin’s terrific drumming. He sounds positively supple on tunes like “Joan of Arc” and the great “Navajo Ace” (with wailing feedback that seems to push against the infectious rhythm of the piece). The restless, hardcore-influenced stuff from Star Booty itself clearly hints at where the band was going — perhaps especially in the tight guitar riffs and obbligatos in “Carnation.” But the band really comes into its own with Umber (and second guitarist Dave Galt contributed mightily to the mix). And of course, what makes this material distinctive is the brimming melody and sense of buoyant optimism filling these otherwise furious tunes, like the terrific “Motor” (with its screaming slide guitar opening) or “Joyless Street.” I’ve always been a sucker, too, for the wistfulness of tunes like “Clay” (and these are all paths Park would explore further in Seam on Touch & Go). What’s more, for every dose of skronk like “Goat-Legged Country God,” the band could get positively anthemic, as on the justly loved “Douglas Leader” (“a brick across the beam,” baby) or the epic “Americruiser.”

This combination of hooks, heaviness, and compositional reach was to my ears realized best of all on Ben Hur. Here, they were firing on all cylinders, stripped back down to a trio (with the exception of David Grubbs adding texture to “Valmead”) and nailing a set of tunes that (from the squalling “Mesentery” to the expansive and beautiful “Crescent”) captures crisply everything the band was about: dynamics, compositional instinct, urgent vocals, and killer complex riffery. This album (here appended by “Sadie” and the rumbling “White Piece of Bread”) benefits most of all from the fine remastering — it not only sounds just a bit huger than before, but there’s significantly more detail audible.

It’s a fantastic body of work, as vital and fresh-sounding now as it was when first released. Far more than a mere contemporary of Bastro and Slint, Bitch Magnet made music that’s as good as anything else from this period of American rock. An essential reissue.

By Jason Bivins

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