The Jesus Lizard Albums From Worst To Best
6. Show (1994): Show seems less essential now than it did back in '94, when you couldn't dial up hours of live Lizard -- including the full-length reunion gig Club, which also came out on a limited-edition Chunklet LP -- with a keystroke. But it's valuable document, precisely because of how ordinary it is. The sound is honest: The band churns through a typically turbulent set (CBGB, December '93, opening for the Damned) sometimes nearly coming unglued (check out that frenzied version of "Boilermaker") as an often-hoarse Yow stumbles alongside. It's fun to imagine what might be going on during the few cues he misses: Were his pants around his ankles? Did the crowd drop him? The frontman's banter is priceless throughout ("Are you waitin' for the Damned; should we leave?"; "Mac's monitor is touring the realms of the nonexistent"; and in response to a wiseguy heckler who name-checks Nietzsche: "I Nietzsche a fuckin' mouth full of my cock"), and the setlist is a doozy, featuring faves from Goat, Liar, and the yet-unreleased Down, along with the best of the Lizard's non-LP tracks (including a winning pair from the 1993 Lash EP: "Glamorous" and "Deaf As A Bat"). Interestingly, the best single performance here might be a cover: TJL's signature version of "Wheelchair Epidemic," originally by influential Austin punks the Dicks. If you're seeking an aural document of the Lizard in the wild, you could do a lot worse than Show.
5. Shot (1996): The indie police want you to scorn Shot -- the Jesus Lizard's major-label debut and its first non-Albini-recorded LP -- and the band sure did make it easy with that cover, which screams early-'90s cut-out bin. The record does have its flaws, namely a thin, unpleasant production job and a scatterbrained quality that's less elegant than Down's dreamlike style-hopping, but anyone calling out Shot as a shark-jumper needs to give it a clear-headed listen. There are many great songs here -- "Thumper" and "Blue Shot," each boasting a borderline pop-catchy chorus, are an opening one-two to rival Liar's "Boilermaker" and "Gladiator" -- and even more great performances. Shot is Yow's star moment. He never had so much fun slipping into characters, such as the skeeved-out stalkee in "Mailman," the increasingly manic free-associator in "Too Bad About The Fire," or the seething vigilante tenant in "Thumbscrews." And the Denison-Sims-McNeilly trio sounds like a chrome-plated bulldozer on high-energy workouts like "More Beautiful Than Barbie" and "Now Then." It may not look or sound all that pretty, but Shot delivers.
4. Head (1990): Head isn't the Jesus Lizard's debut -- the pre-McNeilly Pure EP came out the year prior -- but it might as well be. The classic Lizard lineup emerged fully formed on this lean opus: 27 minutes and 21 seconds of pure scuzz-rock brilliance. Listening now, it's fun to imagine how stoked Scratch Acid fans must've been that Yow and Sims had found two playmates as perfectly suited to their perversion as Denison and McNeilly. The best tracks rival anything in the Acid catalog: "My Own Urine," which moves from a woozy hush to a loud, lewd breakdown as Yow alternately assumes a wino mutter and a comically stagy belt; the deranged-Zeppelin stomper "If You Had Lips"; "Good Thing," a triumphantly horny ode to female disrobement; and the writhing math-rockabilly shimmy "Killer McHann," a live favorite throughout the band's career. For the optimum Head experience, listen sans Pure, which Touch & Go appended on the CD versions; the latter's a nice Lizard curio -- it features an early version of another live staple, "Bloody Mary" -- but Lizard LP No. 1 deserves your full attention.
3. Liar (1992): "Liar isn't really a big step forward, it's more like a step sideways," Yow observed astutely in a pre-Down interview. The album does in fact play like a more party-friendly, less harrowing version of its predecessor, Goat. Sure, there's plenty of fucked-up subject matter in the mix (consider "The Art Of Self-Defense," the story of a nightmarish pygmy assassin, or the self-explanatory "Slave Ship"), but on the whole, Liar is the Lizard's most accessible rock and roll opus and the source of at least three unimpeachable TJL greatest hits: "Boilermaker," "Gladiator," and "Puss," with "Dancing Naked Ladies" following close behind. The deeper cuts are hit-and-miss; the half-baked "Whirl" and the cartoonish cowpunker "Rope" don't live up to the Goat standard, while the astonishing Western-themed ballad "Zachariah" stands as one of the most poignant songs the band ever recorded. By this point, Albini was operating like a fifth member, and if on Goat his drum production was the coup, here it's the vocal treatment. Albini frames Yow's voice for optimum creep-out: high in the mix yet disconcertingly muffled. Even on the less memorable tracks, it's clear that Denison, Sims, and McNeilly didn't need much assistance in conveying maximum flair and fury. Liar might be imperfect, but it's still probably the best TJL intro for the neophyte.
2. Down (1994): Down has an air of portent about it, and it's not just the dog falling out of the sky on the cover. This is the band's final Touch & Go LP, and the last it would record with Steve Albini. Many have tried to blame the actual content of Down for these shifts, as though everyone had been so displeased with the results that ties needed to be cut. Filter out the context, though, and you realize that Down is actually the deepest, most well-rounded LP the band ever made. Sure, Goat and Liar work better as meat-and-potatoes documents of the Lizard's raw impact, but Down is a smorgasboard in comparison: a wide-ranging set that demands and rewards extended exposure. Nearly every track is a different kind of highlight: the swing-noir vignette "The Associate"; "50 Cent," where the band does a grotesque lounge-act strut; the lewd rave-up "Queen For A Day"; the luminous, harrowing ballad "Elegy"; "Horse," with its badass Zeppelin-y plod. There might not be a "Boilermaker" or a "Mouthbreather" here, but in exchange, you get a feeling of sustained intrigue that no other Lizard album can match -- not to mention a gorgeous Albini production: wide and sloshy in the low end, chiming in the highs. Down is the album where the band most successfully transcended their live show, and proved that they stood completely apart from any sort of noise-rock caricature. It's only grown richer with age.
1. Goat (1991): Goat is a straight-up deadly album. This second TJL full-length marries the enormous talent displayed on Head with some of the band's best-ever songwriting; the result makes just about any other record in the same stylistic ballpark sound calculated and one-dimensional by comparison. This is the sort of rock that flails and explodes, but more importantly, dances. Listen to how Mac McNeilly's drum part stitches itself within the contours of Denison's slicing riff on "Mouthbreather," or how the entire band impersonates a super-funky power drill on "Lady Shoes." And the Lizard never built a more imposing wall of menace than on mini epics like "Then Comes Dudley" and "Seasick." (The latter might be the signature Lizard masterpiece: a lurching, lumbering waltz that reeks of outsider-rock brilliance.) Throw in the slide-guitar master class "Nub," the serpentine riff fest "Monkey Trick" and churning, hypnotic closer "Rodeo In Joliet," and you have a very near flawless album, one that answers the question "What made the Lizard great?" more concisely than anything else they put out.