$wingin’ Utter$ – Poorly Formed – Review

Poorly Formed Swingin' Utters
There are three things I miss about San Francisco:

  • The food. Seattle’s okay, but it sure ain’t The City. The bread sucks, the pizza sucks, the delis suck, you can’t get good Chinese or Mexican and the fucking place is obsessed with salmon. I hate salmon. The only purpose of salmon is to provide oil for capsules that men can take regularly to decrease the possibility of erectile dysfunction.
  • The whole leather scene, from the omnipresence of kink shops, BDSM instructional resources to the Folsom Street Fair. Seattle is kink-friendly, but horribly lacking in infrastructure.
  • $winging Utter$.

I owe a lot to the Utter$, my favorite local punk band during my high school years. In concert with the whipping and bondage demonstrations at the Fair (for which I was an eager volunteer), the Utter$ provided me with valuable assistance in my efforts to raise my pain threshold, something I felt was necessary to develop a full understanding of BDSM from both ends of the riding crop.

My education progressed by leaps and bounds one weekend when the Utter$ played back-to-back nights for an all-ages crowd at a venue called Bottom of the Hill. This was one of the few places in the City that forced me to insist that my parents provide the transportation. The neighborhood gave me the creeps. Situated at the foot of Potrero Hill in an area populated by auto body shops, construction companies and big rig trailers taking up all the parking spaces, Bottom of the Hill was off the beaten path when it came to reliable public transportation (not to imply that reliable public transportation exists anywhere in San Francisco), and it was a long, unpleasant walk from Noe Valley, day or night. I didn’t drive then, and none of my girlfriends wanted to drive there. So, after agreeing to do the dishes and clean the toilets for a whole month, my mother agreed to chauffeur two girlfriends and me to the dark side of The City and back so we could slam our bodies into strangers to the glorious sound of the $winging Utter$.

This was totally unfair by the way, since it was my mother’s fault I got into BDSM in the first place by leaving her copy of Histoire d’O in plain sight. I blame negligent parenting for the kinky slut I have become.

After two late-night shows featuring two opening acts and the main attraction, I had more bruises than an overripe banana due to my rather enthusiastic moshing style (I never needed a pit). Now, don’t get the impression that this was all about the delightful physical stimulation, because it wasn’t. The Utter$ were a damned good band featuring a lot more variation than most of the punk rockers on the scene. Oh, yeah, they played loud and growled and pounded away at high speed, but they’d also throw in an accordion, a fiddle and hints of Celtic influence. They had expressionist range, too: they could do pure outrage and they could do funny as fuck. I must have seen them half a dozen times (visits occasionally facilitated by a fake ID), and I had a great time every time.

Anyway, in a couple of years I was off to college, and when I returned, San Francisco was well on its way to becoming another soulless financial center with a shit arts-and-music scene and, worst of all, the Utter$ were no more. It seemed that all the stars had aligned to ship my beautiful ass to Seattle, so I left the chilly fog of my youth for the chilly drizzle and sub-par cuisine of the Northwest.

It was much to my chagrin or cautious delight that I learned a couple of years ago that the Utter$ had rolled away the stone and experienced a rebirth. It wasn’t quite enough to get me to move back home, but it was good to know that they were still kicking ass, as shown on their 2011 release, Here, Under Protest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the altrockchick back then, but I now have the opportunity to atone for my poor timing by reviewing their new release, Poorly Formed.

It’s an ass-kicking, laughter-shaking, paradigm-breaking blast!

They “shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot” out of the gate with “The Librarians Are Hiding Something,” a song that indeed made me “drip-drip-drip-drip-drip” (the quotes refer to the ending lines of the verses). Johnny Bonnel still has that natural distortion gate on his voice that gives his vocals an immediate intensity, and he’s perfect for get-your-ass-out-of-the-seat openers like this one. The dual vocal on the bridge adds a touch of power pop to the mix, showing the Utter$ aren’t afraid to piss off the purists. The band is tight, the song sticks in your head and the whole concept of librarians hiding something makes me want to giggle; it’s such an absurd, provocative image, and the lyrics are a hoot!

She said you’re never alone with a schizo
Picked up the phone and said “Is not, is so!”
She’s here to stay I’m here for a visit
The other line will know who the fuck is this?
Just then I make out a sign
On the small print on her book’s spine
One says we’ll never close
The other one belongs to Edgar Allen Poe

The next song, “Brains,” is another great song, both for the vocal interplay and a series of quotable gems, like “If you don’t mind, I’ll say it bluntly/I’ve been acting kind of cunty.” The chorus features a back-and-forth vocal with lines I’ve always wanted to whisper in the ears of all the stupid people I encounter in daily life: “If you want to know a secret, come closer . . . make one wish for brains.” While Johnny wrote these brilliant lyrics, I have to give a kudos to post-hiatus addition Jack Dalrymple for writing a great piece of music with a melodic line that’s both smooth and sufficiently diverse.

Darius Koski gets into the act with his composition “Stuck in a Circle,” a song that begins with a lovely melody over a subdued background before shifting to power mode on the choruses. The song deals with the complexities of relational communication, a topic vulnerable to a flood of traditional clichés, but one which Koski revitalizes with freshness and poignancy:

Sometimes the only things I stumble on are words
The pain is worse than falling down a flight of stairs
We’re all in a circle, it all comes back to you
We’re all recycled, put together with old news

“Pour Beans” provided me with unpleasant memories of airhead young girls invading Union Square in limos to spend a night on the town barfing all over the sidewalks. Despite the grim trip down Memory Lane, I love the sardonic humor of the song. My mood perked up pretty quickly with a C&W tune replete with banjo (!) and slide, “I’m a Little Bit Country,” a first-person exposé of dumb-ass red-state belief systems, full of killer, tortured rhymes:

I’m a little bit country,
And a little bit of an asshole
I’m a little bit hungry
With this little bit of casserole
I’ve a little bit of Sundays
In my little bit of rigmarole
I’ve a little bit of controversy
In this little bit of turmoil

Beneath the humor, though, is a clear disgust with the stupidity of the American yahoo, and their belief that life is better with a “little bits” approach, creating a culture where getting by is preferable to doing anything about the fucking mess we’re in and the mediocrity towards which we continue to slide:

It’s watered down and yet it’s fortified with everything you need
Don’t be bogged down unless you’re horrified with everything you see

The rest of the album displays both the Utter$’ versatility and willingness to surprise us. “In Video” brings the sound back to street punk, featuring a soaring lead guitar solo and counterpoint. It’s a good lead-in for the title track with its memorable theme and intense drive. We then experience an abrupt shift to violin, accordion and acoustic guitar in the introduction to “Greener Grass,” but the song’s middle is a solid rocker about conflicting desires between escaping the bullshit and immersing oneself in the action. “Temporary Contemporary” kicks ass, pure and simple, and the song “A Walk with the Postman” is a hoot with a great fist-shaking crowd response opportunity with the “Hey, Hey” shouts in the final chorus.

“Military Barbara Billingsley” (what a great title!) is an exercise in absurdist punk, contrasting contemporary faces such as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert with the everlasting image of Beaver’s mom. “Dreadlock Dread Reggae” and “The Fake Rat of Dave Navarro” are solid power punk tunes that would make for great back-to-back live performance piece. The album-ender “Sevita Sing” is a sweet duo with Latin touches and lyrics in English and California Spanish.

Never having been one for nostalgia and always skeptical of groups who re-form (see my review of the latest Cranberries album for confirmation), I approached both Here, Under Protest and Poorly Formed with my wariness turned up to full volume. On both albums, these guys broke through my defenses in about 11 seconds, making me want to get up, dance, shout, sing and laugh. The new lineup is their strongest yet because Jack Dalrymple gives them three first-rate songwriters and some very exciting possibilities for new directions. Although purists may frown at the relative eclecticism of the album, I think Poorly Formed is one of their best. Even the most tone-deaf, emotionally inhibited listener has to be moved by the sheer energy of the band and want to share in the fun they’re having making this great music.

Johnny Bonnel said it best in an interview with SF Weekly: “Working together to create something unique should be the world’s motto!” It’s a great motto for Poorly Formed.

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