'Houdini' by Melvins is an album often cited as their best work, which is definitely something that divides the fans, it seems that like bands like The Dead, The Fall & Sonic Youth, everyone has their own Melvins' fave and it could be 'Houdini', just as often as it could be 'Hostile Ambient Takeover', 'Stag', 'Bullhead', 'Ozma', '(A) Senile Animal', or the 'Lysol/Melvins' album. I'm not sure 'Houdini' is the band's most mainstream release, it was on a major label, but in line with the band who released material before and after - I'd probably single out 'The Crybaby' as the most mainstream one as it had guests and cover versions people would know (the kind of record that would breakthrough due to the quirky version of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' with Leif Garrett alongside other guests like Hank Williams III, Mike Patton, Adam Jones of Tool and J.G. Thirwell aka Foetus). 'Houdini' is an album singled out due to the association with the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who is viewed as the producer - working on this between 'Nevermind' and 'In Utero.' However, as the credits show, Melvins produced part of it themselves and in collaboration with Cobain and Gggarth Richardson. In a recent interview in the Wire, King Buzzo dismisses 'Houdini', preferring the live version released last year, and points to Cobain's well recorded addictions. So, while Cobain has something to do with this record, he's no John Cale figure behind it all - we should remind ourselves that Nirvana's 'Bleach' was heavily influenced by Melvins, that Dale Crover briefly drummed for Nirvana, & that Cobain failed an audition to become Melvins' bassist (the bass-position in Melvins is not far from Spinal Tap's take on drummers!!).
Recorded during the "Grunge Years", 'Houdini' was the first of a trilogy of albums recorded for Atlantic alongside 'Stoner Witch' (1994) and 'Stag' (1996)- though the band did find time for the usual array of side-projects and 1994's 'Prick' by Snivlem, released on Amphetamine Reptile records (where they would release the hard to find 'Honky' and a series of singles once dropped by Atlantic). It's probably the least interesting of the three Atlantic albums - 'Stoner Witch' is both poppier and stranger, while 'Stag' veers off into bizarre directions, with many an experimental piece and psychedelic/jazz inflected material like 'The Bit' and 'Bar-X' (the latter sounding like Sabbath playing something from 'Giant Steps' by the Boo Radleys!!!). Still...this is the Melvins and 'Houdini' is a fine collection of songs and like Screaming Trees' 'Sweet Oblivion' a better album than 'In Utero', 'Superunknown' or other releases from the more well known acts associated with the grunge phenemenon (it should be pointed out that Melvins, like Mudhoney and Screaming Trees, were around years before the 'G'-tag came into existence!). 'Houdini' has guests, including Billy Anderson (bass on 'Hag Me' and 'Teet'), Bill Bartell (bass/lead guitar on 'Goin' Blind')& Cobain, playing his trademark guitar on 'Sky Pup' and contributing percussion to 'Spread Eagle Beagle' alongside Al Smith, Mike Supple & Crover.
Melvins constant duo of King Buzzo and Dale Crover parted company with Joe Preston (Earth, High on Fire, Thrones) and the lengendary Lorax rejoined on bass (having been in an earlier line-up that released the classic 'Bullhead' LP). The collection manages to fuse the 'My War'-Black Flag influences with Sabbath, but by now was a sound all of the Melvins' own - this was probably the LP Cobain wanted to make with 'In Utero', had he not had the obvious problems we read about in his published diaries...
'Houdini' is a great collection, showcasing the sludgy metal sound in full, alongside the tight playing of all Melvins line-ups, no doubt influenced by their punk/hardcore origins. Check the opening of 'Honey Bucket' out, which sounds like a jazz-Meat Puppets, the opening of the lengthy 'Hag Me', or the epic closing piece 'Spread Eagle Beagle', which is a drum-lead piece that predicts the industrial directions the band have continued on albums like 'Colossus of Destiny' and 'Pigs of the Roman Empire.'
There is the poppier side of the band, apparent in live favourite 'Set Me Straight', their cover of 'Goin' Blind' from Kiss's 'Hotter Than Hell', and the 70s rock chant 'Joan of Arc', which has some screaming that reminds me of the Sweet (probably wouldn't have worried the charts if released though!). 'Sky Pup' is kind of funky, though sounds like Nirvana chanelling Fishbone and TG at the same time - the recent live version is much better, as Crover's lead rap comes to the fore.
Opener 'Hooch' takes no prisoners, a monster dirge riff coming straight in with Buzzo's howl, keeping the uncompromising riff-heavy material coming with the classic 'Night-Goat', though again, I'd point to the superior (& much longer) take on 'a live history of gluttony and lust', which is as great as the current epic take on 'The Bit' in Melvins' live shows. The band sometimes revisit their material and more often than not, improve on the original. The trilogy of 'Teet', 'Cop-Ache' and 'Pearl Bomb' are much more punk rock, though the one song that probably ranks as my favourite is 'Lizzy', which sounds like a psychedelic Nirvana and has that great point where the band/riff comes in...wonderful.
'Houdini' is a great album, though probably far from the best of the Melvins' back catalogue - it is an album that the band revisited for the ATP-sponsored 'Don't Look Back' series of concerts, a tradition which continues this year with bands like The House of Love, Slint, and Sonic Youth playing one of their albums in a complete version. At an ATP festival in Spain, Melvins are due to revisit 'Houdini' once again, though I kind of love their current manic medley which includes several tracks from it alongside material from 'Honky' and 'Ozma' and a cover of Cream's 'Deserted Cities of the Heart' (DCH). The live version from 2005 is better, though with a change in the running order and some drastically reworked versions - heck, it's the Melvins and really, ye should own it all.