Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Muffs - Really Really Happy (2004/2022, Omnivore) - A brief review

The very fact that The Muffs spent the better part of a decade (that would be the '90s) on a major label is as wholly logical as it is a bit antithetical. Logical in the respect that front-woman/guitarist Kim Shattuck, bass wrangler Ronnie Barnett and drummer Roy McDonald composed a power trio who were of classicist pop stock - so much so that one of the band's most obvious calling cards was built on a foundation of '60s girl group harmonies. The Muffs penchant for songs averaging approximately 150 seconds in length lent even more cred to their accessibility factor. In fact, it was this swift in-and-out brevity that helped ingratiate them with certain contingents of the punk community, even after they made a break in the early-90s for Warner Bros. As for why it was a relatively antithetical, if not ironic choice for the Muffs to hitch themselves to such a corporate behemoth...well, the group's moniker alone probably wasn't a big selling point to suburbanites, despite their charming image. Furthermore, though Kim was able to carry one hell of a tune and dole out devastating hooks, she wasn't what most would call a natural singer. Her incorrigibly sassy and fractured whine (not to mention famous intermittent roars) were immediately endearing to those who enjoyed such savage proclivities, yet they were hardly the kind of affectations the general public were tolerant of - even if they were the same folks responsible for propelling Green Day's Dookie into umpteenth-platinum status. 

Over the course of three dynamite records for the WB (The Muffs, Blonder and Blonder, and Happy Birthday to Me) commercially, the Muffs never really caught a break. And despite a strong emphasis on creative control and no shortage of muscular power chords our protagonists never slotted comfortably with any of the given punk sub-genres of their day, be it grunge, ska, Epitaph/Fat, post-hardcore, etc.  Though I don't know the circumstances surrounding their departure from Warner Bros, such a fate often brought bands of the Muff's stature to their knees - and often to a logical dissolution. They did not in fact split up, but instead soldiered on for their first independent full length, 1999's Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow on Honest Don's Records. It would be another half decade before the world received their next Muffs fix, 2004's Really Really Happy, which has been reissued by Omnivore who've appended a half-dozen rarities from the same sessions, plus a heretofore unreleased disk of Kim's home recordings housed under the title of New Improved Kim Shattuck Demos

Free to really let it crank and let their aggro-punk flag fly, ...Really Happy curiously enough finds the trio even more disciplined despite having regained a firm footing in indie-land.  The overarching ambience exuded by the Muffs here is about as composed and linear as they've ever sounded, with leaner guitar tones and an even more economical sonic palette than what they were aiming for a decade prior. When ...Really Happy initially surfaced in 2004 it was heartening to discover the band were definitely not trying to out-heavy or out-punk themselves, but doubly more relieving was that Kim's raw vocal panache was thoroughly intact, sounding as indulgently and utterly human as ever. Not a career-defining record, ...Really Happy was nonetheless phenomenally consistent, brandishing all of the Muffs' telltale facets including no shortage of bubble-gummy overtones permeating numbers like "Everybody Loves You," "A Little Luxury," and "How I Pass the Time."  Simultaneously simple yet somehow flabbergasting in its execution, The Muff's formula never yielded a completely unsatisfactory song. In addition to ...Happy's proper seventeen songs the CD version of this reissue appends three more from foreign variants of the record, along with a handful of outtakes including a primo half-minute salvo, "Just the Beginning," and the promising fragment "I Hate Gym."

Kim Shattuck passed away on October 2, 2019 after a valiant but ultimately fatal battle with ALS. Her diagnosis wasn't disclosed to the public until that time. In the liner notes to the reissue of ...Really Happy, bandmate Ronnie Barnett addresses her directly, stating that her demos were "accomplished works of her own that were truly special."  Barnett was thoroughly on the money, and after hearing the New Improved Kim Shattuck Demos portion of this collection you not only get an inside seat to the makings of the record, but a sense of how strenuous her quality control was. Accompanied by basic percussion tracks, these early incarnations of the songs were largely representative of what the finished product would amount to, albeit presented in a slightly more spartan and streamlined context. We're even treated to a song that never made it past the prototype phase, the subdued "Even Now."

The nicely expanded Really Really Happy is available on double CD and a single LP directly from Omnivore or Amazon.  The Kim Shattuck Demos also saw a stand alone vinyl release this past Record Store Day.