Seven Inches to Salvation

The 1992 pairing of "Jim Motherfucker" and "Spine," the third release by the Columbus, Ohio, punk quartet Gaunt, is one of the best arguments I can think of for the necessity of the seven-inch single in an era of compact-disc convenience. Probably only a few thousand people around the globe have heard it -- not many more copies than that have even been pressed, and the indie labels responsible for its initial release (Anyway) and subsequent reissue (Get Hip) aren't exactly rolling in advertising and promo dollars. Still, it remains one of this decade's greatest punk singles, a throttling two-sided masterpiece of tuneful hostility, a kind of aural chaos kept just enough in check to prevent the songs from snapping off the turntable into shards of black plastic.

The A-side is a smart-assed albeit good-natured poke at then-Gaunt guitarist and current New Bomb Turks fret-mangler Jim Weber, with a no-frills four-four clomp, guitars sputtering and spewing a distorted mess of power chords and a vocal by Jerry Wick -- Gaunt's frontman and founder -- that bristles with a hostility even the lyrics don't make entirely clear (and you'd need to read some fanzine interviews before realizing Wick and Weber have never really been on bad terms). It's the kind of song -- like the Ramones' junkie-kiss "53rd and 3rd" or the Clash's "Cheapskate" -- that is entirely specific to a person, place, or event only a few could possibly know but that is of universal appeal simply because of the force, power, and conviction compacted into the grooves.

The B-side is only marginally less assaultive; basically it's a four-minute fuck-you to, maybe, a nagging girlfriend or a relentless hanger-on. But among the scraps of lyrics that break through the sheets of monstrous riffs, feedback squeal, and mangled solos, you hear glimmers of doubt lurking beneath Wick's assertion "I can't have you wasting all my time" -- suggesting he may be unsure of the words even as he lays them down with enough force and conviction to make you want to know exactly who inspired this seemingly bitter rant. By the time it slams to a halt, though, you aren't wondering whether Wick is an asshole misogynist or a lousy boyfriend. You just want him to either get what he wants or figure out exactly what it is he wants. And then you just want to hear the record -- both sides -- again.

"Jim Motherfucker" and "Spine" are among Gaunt's finest moments, possibly their best, and, taken as a single, it's a seminal artifact from the Columbus rock underground that's been producing good-to-great bands for more than fifteen years. Though it shares some turf with hoo-hah-ed alt-rock college-town capitals from Athens to Seattle to Chapel Hill to wherever, Columbus has produced a staggering number of artists and a staggeringly diverse array of music. Its punk bands are among the fiercest, its experimental artists among the weirdest -- the scalding rock heat of Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, New Bomb Turks, Geraldine, and Monster Truck Five; the myriad lo-fi productions of Mike Rep; the completely screwball mutterings of Sam Esch and Jim Shepard; the bitingly poetic trash-rock of the Yips; the slopbucket blues and rockabilly of Bassholes and the now-defunct Gibson Brothers. These artists have been documented by several Columbus-based independent labels, including Anyway and Datapanik, as well as indies throughout the United States and Europe -- Siltbreeze, Amphetamine Reptile, Epitaph, Crypt, and Thrill Jockey among them.

Gaunt has released at least one record on most of the Columbus indies, as well as on imprints throughout the Buckeye State and abroad. Their discography is daunting even by the standards of the arguably too-prolific punk-rock underground -- three albums, two EPs, and seven singles, not to mention the compilations to which they've contributed and split-singles they've shared with groups such as the Beavers and New Bomb Turks. The band's lineup has changed with pretty much every other release, but the one constant in the group has been Jerry Wick, who flirts with brilliance like Harvey Keitel's cinematic tough guy from Mean Streets, lowering his hand time and again closer and closer to a candle's flame -- knowing for certain he'll be burned but also believing he can get this much closer every time he faces the glowing glob of wax.

Like Paul Westerberg, Wick is a product of old-school punk rock and isn't ashamed of his fetish for sharp hooks, unshakable melodies, and mainstream leanings. Meaning he'll throw out a sneering, hot-tempered assessment of the state he calls his lousy home ("Ohio") and a celebration of on-the-dole living ("Salvation Army"), then follow with something sweet and achy that, if not for the shamelessly cruddy production, could find a spot on even slightly adventurous AOR stations ("Turn to Ash," "Justine").

Wick has been juggling the myriad facets of his contradictory muse his entire career. Gaunt's seven-inch output represents a brilliant and snarling body of work in which sloppy recording techniques actually enhance the bite of the guitars and the anger, melancholy, and confusion in his vocals and lyrics. Their albums, however, have been patchy at best, with exhilarating highs and severe lows. On them all (I Can See Your Mom from Here; Yeah, Me Too; Kryptonite), Wick is more inclined to indulge his penchant for ballads -- hardly a bad thing -- but they've been marred by inconsistency, with flabby songs, half-baked experiments, and little focus. Even the songs that hit so hard in their seven-inch versions -- e.g., "Ohio," "Turn to Ash," "Solution" -- often sound dull, rote, in their re-recorded longplaying versions.

With Bricks and Blackouts, the band's latest disc and its major-label debut for Warner Bros., Gaunt has pulled off a miraculous feat at the most unfortunate time imaginable: They've harnessed the crude power of their singles, wrapping up Wick's best-yet collection of songs in production that's anything but lo-fi, just as labels such as Warners have lost complete interest in finding the new Nirvana. In other words, if Bricks and Blackouts is still in print this time next year it will be a miracle. If the band gets a chance to follow it up with another WB effort, the apocalypse must be near.

Gaunt isn't the first collection of Columbus punks to find themselves recording for the big boys: Both Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments and Jim Shepard's V-3 released albums in the mid-Nineties for American's Onion offshoot -- fine efforts that at least matched their previous indie output yet failed to pull them out from the underground. It's unlikely Bricks and Blackouts will fare any better, since the band's indie-rock audience will scoff at some of the album's ornate flourishes (acoustic guitars and pianos are among punk-rock no-nos) while whoever's left out there in the guitar-rock mainstream will be repelled by the furious tempos, stop-start dynamics, and Wick's yelped vocals.

Whatever. Beyond any wrong-headed rhetoric or reticence, Bricks and Blackouts remains the only album in Gaunt's prodigious canon that could rival the inevitable compilation of the band's (largely out of print) singles output. Everything works, from the lightly shimmering studio polish of the production (by Tim Mac, Brian Paulson, and Gaunt) to the most unabashed pop moves Wick has ever attempted. The acoustic guitars and hushed vocals of the title track are far removed from the cacophony and grit of "Jim Motherfucker" and "Spine," but the melancholy and confusion of the lyric are undeniably linked to Wick's best screamers and shouters.

And there's plenty of screaming and shouting here, anyway. "97th Tear" burns along like a radio-ready outtake from the Replacements' Tim, with lead guitarist Jovan Karcic underpinning Wick's rhythm work with biting but beautiful lines. "Anxiety" and "Far Away" are taut, hardcore bulldozers that hark back to the band's early work (albeit with much cleaner fidelity). The reworked version here of the 1993 single "Pop Song" can't touch the scalding original, but "Powder Keg Variety" -- first issued two years ago as a Super 8 seven-inch -- is a throttling showcase for Karcic's seldom-heard lead vocals. And "Mixed Metals" and "Don't Tell" chart the remarkable growth of Gaunt as a band and Wick as one of the underground's best songwriters. Too bad he'll probably stay there, because Bricks and Blackouts is, pardon the expression, a motherfucker.

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John Floyd