The Melvins are The Pixies of stoner-sludge rock. Actually, The Pixies might be The Melvins of alternative rock. The Melvins, whose history is the stuff of grunge/’90s alt rock legend, have actually become more experimental as the years have gone by, while The Pixies (who, for many listeners, are no deal without Kim Deal) have gone more decidedly traditional. Both bands have had their array of challenging bassist-retention issues, if not outright drama. Where the absence of Kim Deal from The Pixies has been a detriment to the band (in some fans’ ears) the rotating bassists of The Melvins have done little to stir up a controversy of sound in the ears of their fans.
The Melvins, celebrating the game of musical chairs that often defines the bass playing role in the band, utilized six different bass players on their latest album, An album which is titled, with a rather straightforward irony, Bases Loaded. Every musician to take a turn as The Melvins bassist for a track on the album has either been a member of the band or someone who is intimately connected to the band, as so many of the Pacific Northwest bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s are. An album with six different bassists on it, and nearly every song works. Take that Black Francis.
Steve McDonald (Redd Kross), Krist Novoselic (Nirvana), Jeff Pinkus (Butthole Surfers), Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle/Fantomas), Jared Warren (Big Business), and Dale Crover (long-term Melvins drummer) all appear on Bases Loaded. Each track they appear on reflects a very different, yet very distinctly Melvins’, sound, as each of their tracks either harkens back to a certain Melvins’ sound that resonates with their time with the band or is uniquely reflective of their own quirks and distinctions.
Novoselic’s guest bass track, “Maybe I’m Amused,” has a polka swing to it which indulges in the most alt of alt-rock conventions, as one would expect from the uber-hip and “alternative” Novoselic. One of Dale Crover’s guest bass playing songs, titled “Shaving Cream,” is a weird ditty sung to the the tune of “My Bonnie” about shit…literally. These two tracks are the most experimental, and sadly, throwaway moments on the album. Remember the whole Melvins/Pixies thing I blathered about at the beginning of this review? Well, sometimes the shared quirkiness that runs through both The Melvins and The Pixies’ sound doesn’t always work. “Shaving Cream” might be meant to be comical, but it comes off as more juvenile than funny in any way. “Maybe I’m Amused” sound too much like a Nirvana cover bands’ poor attempt to tap into the quirkiness that occasionally ran through Nirvana B-Sides like “Downer.”
Now, let’s get to the good stuff. “Planet Destructo,” which features Trevor Dunn, who was with The Melvins for their Melvins (Lite) album Freak Puke, is a standout track. With an opening reminiscent of the shoegazey “You Can Make Me Wait” off of The Melvins’ 2014 release Hold It In, the song goes on to morph into a brilliant jazz jam that Bitches Brew era Miles Davis would appreciate, even if only as background rhythm music. Regardless, it’s one hell of a background jazz bass track. Dunn is a master of the upright bass, and it really shows here. The Melvins succeed at this type of musical experimentation (dabbling in jazz rhythms and atmospherics) much more than the oddball type accordion polka swing experiment Novoselic seemed to have talked them into.
Steve McDonald does a good job helping the band pay their best tribute to Black Sabbath with “The Decay of Lying.” Sludging along with a signature King Buzzo riff that would make Tony Iommi proud, the album opens with this slog of a doom metal stomp. Come to think of it, Kim Thayil would be proud to be considered following in Buzzo’s footsteps here, as The Melvins and Soundgarden have much in common as well, especially when Soundgarden were in their early years.Thaylin most likely learned plenty off Buzzo, and still apparently can when Buzzo lays down riffs like this. Jarred Warren’s guest bass track is classic Melvins as well, even if “Choco Plumbing” leans a little more towards the psychedelic. It’s a sound that’s good for The Melvins though. Crover is redeemed on “Beer Hippie,” another doom metal slog that delivers in every sonic way possible that a doom metal track can. Ditto for “Captain Come Down,” JD Pinkus’ guest starring track.
Overall, The Melvins have been at it for 30-plus years with at least six bassists and still seem to have plenty enough left in the tank to take it around the horn at least a few more times. It’ll be interesting to see how the score tallies up after they drive the bassists home and settle on a direction for their first album post-Bases Loaded. Experimentation seems to be their mode du jour, and it seems to be working for them, for the most part.