The Jesus Lizard Albums From Worst To Best
Jesus Lizard fans love to swap war stories. They’ll tell you about how bassist David Wm. Sims almost impaled them with his headstock during one of his trademark gyrations, how guitarist Duane Denison stomped on some poor crowd-surfer who launched into his amp, or how vocalist David Yow — having already partially half-exposed his junk roughly a dozen times — grabbed a male fan standing at the back of the stage and smooched him square on the mouth. (The latter actually did occur during a 1997 Lawrence, KS, gig I attended; the victim happened to be one of my best friends.) Or they might tell you with perverse relish how the Lizard epitomize a rock subgenre known as pigfuck. (AllMusic.com helpfully refers to TJL’s sound as “scathing, disembowelling, guitar-driven pseudo-industrial noise.”) This kind of sordid mythmaking isn’t likely to end anytime soon. The fact is that grime and raucousness are entertaining — just ask the publisher of Mötley Crüe bestseller The Dirt.
But the problem with that approach to Lizardology is that it reduces the Chicago-via-Austin quartet to some sort of three-sheets-to-the-wind novelty act, the post-hardcore equivalent of John Belushi in Animal House. Was Yow an often wasted and/or naked loose cannon onstage? Sure. (There’s even a 1994 live clip where he takes a beer bottle to the head and goes down midsong, apparently out cold, only to get up minutes later, stride to the mic and mock-haughtily sneer to his bandmates, “I’m waaaaaiting.”) Did the band contribute to the development of so-called noise-rock in the early ’90s? Undoubtedly. They wrote some of the scuzziest, most obnoxious songs of their day, e.g., the Denison slide feature “Nub,” which could easily soundtrack a raunchy pole dance. But “noise” implies clutter, excess. The Jesus Lizard were, at their core, an incredibly spare band — four perfect elements (v, g, b, d) jelling in the classic Zeppelin mode.
What the tabloid version of the Lizard glosses over is how sly they were, how elegant and versatile. How Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly combined heft and swagger as well as any rhythm section since Jones/Bonham (“Gladiator,” anyone?); how Denison translated the stylized twang of classic rockabilly to a precision snarl fit for the woolly rock underground (check out those mesmerizing chords at about 2:30 in “Monkey Trick”); how supposed buffoon David Yow could really, truly sing when he put his mind to it (see: the gorgeous “Zachariah”). Now, three years on from the triumphant reunion tour that’s likely to be the band’s last, and just a few weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of the classic Lizard LP Liar, it seems as good a time as any to trade the scribbly TJL caricature for a more nuanced portrait.
The thing about the Jesus Lizard’s records is that they aren’t just souvenirs of their legendary live show. Sit with the discography as a whole and you get plenty of the band’s patented art-blues pummel, but you also start to grasp what made the Jesus Lizard not just a key presence during its early-to-mid-’90s heyday but one the truly great rock bands, full stop. More specifically, you see that the classic narrative of the band — indie glory years, major-label decline — needs some retooling. The Jesus Lizard never released a skippable record; even their strange, industrial-tinged swan song, Blue, adds compelling wrinkles to their saga.
Before we dive in, a little context. The story of the Jesus Lizard is the story of two cities and roughly five bands. In mid-’80s Austin, Davids Yow and Sims were riding high in Scratch Acid, a caterwauling, piledriving quartet whose work served as a blueprint for TJL. (No Lizard study is complete without Scratch Acid comp The Greatest Gift.) Duane Denison was working with Big Boys singer Randy “Biscuit” Turner in the eccentric, way-underrated art-punk band Cargo Cult. The two bands shared bills, and after Scratch Acid broke up in 1987, Denison tapped Yow — Scratch Acid’s original four-stringer — to play bass in a new project he was starting. Yow wanted to sing, so he drafted Sims for the bass role; the Jesus Lizard was born, abetted by a drum machine and named after a reptile that runs on water. Sims split for Chicago, where he’d join Scratch Acid drummer Rey Washam and former Big Black frontman Steve Albini in Rapeman, and Yow and Denison tagged along. After one strong album, Rapeman broke up in ’89, the same year the Jesus Lizard released their first EP, the drummerless, Albini-produced Pure. Yow put in a call to Mac McNeilly — whom he’d met when the Atlanta-based drummer’s former band 86 played Austin — and McNeilly headed to Chicago to try out in the summer of ’89. It must’ve been a smooth audition; the Jesus Lizard we know and love made its live debut on July 1 of that year.
Over the next five years, the Lizard toured heavily and issued four LPs on Touch and Go, in the process earning a reputation as the premier exponent of shitkicking independent rock. They shared bills with Nirvana, Helmet, Melvins, Sonic Youth, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and countless other heavies of the day. In ’95, the Lizard joined the Lollapalooza tour; on the Cincinnati stop, Yow exposed himself as per usual and landed in jail. The following April, TJL issued their Capitol Records debut, Shot. Mac McNeilly left the band near the end of ’96, opting out to spend more time with his young kids, and the Lizard continued on with drummer Jim Kimball, who had worked with Denison in the noir-jazz side project Denison-Kimball Trio. The band released one final LP, Blue, on Capitol in ’98, and the following March, in Umeå, Sweden, they played the last show of their initial lifespan.
Almost exactly a decade later, the original lineup of Yow, Denison, Sims and McNeilly reconvened for a pair of All Tomorrow’s Parties gigs. They spent the rest of that year touring Europe and the U.S., vindicating all the old-timers who swore they’d never seen a better live band. Touch & Go celebrated with awesome-sounding reissues of the first four Lizard LPs; make sure you get ahold of those if you’re listening along. (Speaking of the reissues, they’re studded with bonus tracks — some great, some inessential — but for the purposes of this list, I’m considering original track listings only.) The Countdown starts here; lamentations regarding the exclusion of the “Puss”/”Oh, The Guilt” split in the comments.
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.