On paper, Chagall Guevara were an absurd proposition: Start with five musicians in their mid-thirties who were already years deep into reasonably profitable music careers. Have them junk those careers completely and cram into a van to play remote clubs in the American South, subsisting on convenience store snacks and scraping together their per diems to pay the bills and buy the occasional cheap gift for their wives and children. (Did I not mention their wives and children? They have wives and children.) Appoint an absentee manager, fire the promotions staff of their record company, and have them try to break into the mainstream almost a year before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made alt rock the lingua franca of American radio.
Oh, and also: Give them a band name that no one can pronounce.
On the other hand, absurdism was a crucial part of Chagall Guevara’s DNA. The record you now hold in your hand imagines Jonathan Swift writing for The Stooges, pairing razor-edged social satire with searing guitars in songs that pierced like poison-tipped arrows. It’s a record where references to the Love Canal tragedy and Ethel Mertz from I Love Lucy sit side by side, and a real-life answering machine mishap plays out like a Dadaist Monty Python sketch. At the time, the band was fond of saying that they were trying to play intelligent music like mindless fools. As frontman Steve Taylor wryly put it during a 1991 press conference at a festival in the UK: “We got the last part right, I think.”
Critics took note: A glowing, three-and-a-half-star review in Rolling Stone raved, “Not since the Clash has a group so effectively turned militant discontent into passionate rock & roll.” And while the band didn’t scale the heights of rock stardom to which it seemed they were destined, what’s striking now, thirty years later, is how prescient the record seems. It’s there from the jump: slash-and-burn opener “Murder in the Big House,” with its searing riff and Taylor’s caustic vocals, depicts a planet crumbling beneath its own weight, populated by, “Neros fanning ourselves” as the roof caves in on all of us. A more apt soundtrack for a global pandemic, I cannot imagine. The queasy, churning “Monkey Grinder” explores the same ideas that Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite would decades later—that the machinery of capitalism is a death trap designed to exploit the most vulnerable, that there’s always a boss behind the boss, always a boa living under the fat man’s porch. And the manipulative charlatan lurking at the center of the radiant “Candy Guru” could be any one of the modern era’s charismatic cult leaders—from Keith Raniere to Ghislaine Maxwell—exploiting the emotionally vulnerable for their own benefit.
Musically, the record is just as fierce and scabrous. Expertly produced by Matt Wallace—fresh off a gig behind the boards on Faith No More’s breakthrough The Real Thing—the twin guitars of Dave Perkins and Lynn Nichols (the former brawling and punky, the latter glittering like they were lifted from a classic Byrds track) have a ruthless immediacy, and the interplay between them defines the band’s sound. It’s a push-and-pull between delicacy and demolition. They’re goaded along by the whip-crack drumming of Mike Mead, and anchored in Wade Jaynes’ searching, melodic basslines. The entire record is a brilliant collision of sensibilities, and it comes through in moments like the pirouetting guitar figure that sets the stage for the middle eight on “Violent Blue,” and the way the aching “I Need Somebody” swings from stormy, turbulent verses to its giant, soaring chorus. It’s that tension that gives the record its dangerous combustibility—the sense that, at any moment, the whole thing could explode.
After spending a dozen songs kicking at the Exquisite Corpse of the modern era, the group leaves us with “If It All Comes True,” a bruising number sung by Perkins that provides the only viable answer to all of the album’s questions: “If it all comes true, and our dreams fall like bombs from the blue / Oh, my love, come stand by me.” In the three decades since the album was released, Escher’s World has only gotten more dizzying, the Rub of Love rougher and more callous. But the good news is this: The solution that Perkins sang about still remains one hell of a cure.
— J. Edward Keyes, December 2021