BY MICHAEL TOLAND
The Flesh Eaters have done a few gigs since their informal dissolution in the early ‘aughts. But I Used to Be Pretty, the legendary L.A. group’s first album since 2004, counts as a full-on resurrection. Reconvening guitarist Dave Alvin, bassist John Doe, saxophonist Steve Berlin, drummer Bill Bateman and percussionist D.J. Bonebrake, AKA the version of the band responsible for the 1981 classic A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die, plus guest singer Julie Christensen from Flesh Eaters successor Divine Horsemen, leader/songwriter Chris D. (Chris Desjardins to his divorce lawyers) kicks the tomb open with a collection of old songs, frequently performed cover tunes and a pair of new numbers.
“Miss Muerte,” originally from the 2004 album of the same name, the Gun Club’s “She’s Like Heroin to Me” and “Pony Dress,” from 1979 and one of the Eaters’ earliest tracks, blast out like snarling beasts that live only to break bones and spit fire. “The Wedding Dice” and “My Life to Live,” both from the fiery 1982 LP Forever Came Today, and “House Amid the Thickets,” from 1999’s Ashes of Time, roar with the kind of menacing atmosphere that’s fed Desjardins’ noir-obsessed creativity for decades. “The Youngest Profession,” from 1991’s Dragstrip Riot, crawls like a murderous kingsnake; along with a stunning cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi,” it shows off the band’s sometimes well-hidden grounding in the blues. Taken from the pages of the Sonics songbook, “Cinderella” pounds and grooves as if the band colored its collective youth with decades of dirt and experience.
The new songs bookend the album like warning signs that say “Woe be to he who enters here” and “told ya, fucker.” Opener “Black Temptation” walks at a deceptively casual pace before revealing the blackened beast within, while the closing “Ghost Cave Lament” stretches out like the Flesh Eaters epics of yore, a deluge of grim fear oozing across the landscape like a centipede made of saxophone, guitar and marimba, howling into the abyss as it goes.
Desjardin’s feral commitment to his mini-apocalypses was never in doubt, but it’s his colleagues’ fire that impresses. Alvin in particular digs deep into the ugliest parts of himself, spraying aggressive blues guitar and slashing tone all over these songs like he’s trying to fight his way out of them. Berlin’s sax solos almost sound like oasises in a thunderstorm here, while Bonebrake’s marimba, even when nearly hidden by his bandmates’ chaos, adds an otherworldly element that gives the songs the creeps they require. Everyone relocates the vibe that allowed them to make a classic slice of postpunk scree almost forty years ago, then pumps it up with steroids. This isn’t the sound of a band trying to relive past glories or make a paycheck on a revered name – this is the sound of a seminal act kicking the ass of what made it great in the first place.
Sometimes older and wiser just makes you harder and meaner. I Used to Be Pretty is the grungy, gangly, glorious result of hard-won maturity.
DOWNLOAD: “My Life to Live,” “The Youngest Profession,” “Ghost Cave Lament”
Sat., March 9 SAINT PAUL, MN Turf Club
Sun., March 10 CHICAGO, IL Lincoln Hall
Mon., March 11 GRAND RAPIDS, MI The Pyramid Scheme
Tues., March 12 DETROIT, MI El Club
Thurs., March 14 BOSTON, MA City Winery Boston
Fri., March 15 PHILADELPHIA, PA Johnny Brenda’s
Sat., March 16 WASHINGTON, DC Union Stage
Sun., March 17 NEW YORK, NY Bowery Ballroom