The Narly nineties was a pretty mint time for fans of unashamed American misery – from the sick, sticky angst of Hole’s Pretty On The Inside through to the ornate, consumptive celebration of depression that was Red House Painters’ Down Colorful Hill via the foot-on-the-neck, finger on self-destruction of The God Machine’s matchless Scenes From The Second Storey, those with an inclination toward self-reflection, with a penchant for album length visits to the darker realms of the psyche were catered for in surfeit.
Come’s Eleven: Eleven, released in 1993 on Matador and unavailable for many years now, is not, in some convenient journalistic happenstance, the sum of the three records mentioned above, but a parallel beast with claws of a sharper, more finely honed kind.
Come had already been tagged as a ‘blues’ band (albeit one that might appeal to those who’d maybe never heard a lick of Robert Johnson) and lavished with praise in the way only the Nineties UK press could lavish on the basis of their first couple of singles ‘Car’ and the monumental ‘Fast Piss Blues’ (see? It says ‘blues’ right there) but little could have prepared the listener, casual or otherwise, for the soaking deluge of black rain that would pour forth from Chris Brokaw and Thalia Zedek’s first collaborative long player.
Written in a burst of bleak creativity and recorded fast and with few overdubs by Tim O’Heir and Carl Plaster, this is less a blues album, more a grey-black bruise left by the interlocking, alternately fierce and beaten guitars and voices of Brokaw and Zedek, a careening ship held on course by the lithe, pulsating rhythm section of Sean O’Brien, whose bass laps and rolls like a controlled storm, and Arthur Brien’s walls-of-the-madhouse drums.
If the Afghan Whigs (a band Come sometimes bear a passing resemblance to) brought drug-love, sexual destruction and self-loathing out into the open, maybe even glamourised the role of the fucked fucker a little, then Come showed you here precisely and without censor what the true emotional cost of drugs, of love, of absolute untamable loss felt like.
Take ‘Brand New Vein’, a cousin to ‘Cave In’ by Codeine (a band Brokaw was still an integral part of at the time of this release). Zedek slurs and wails “Everything looks bad from your hospital bed” like a Ramone, like a poet, like Patti, her arching, bucking aches thrashing against the equally tortured Neil Young-isms being torn out of Brokaw’s guitar. It’s six minutes plus of absolute pain, packed with nihilistic assurances like frankly frightening “In the end there’ll be no-one”.
Dig in to ‘Off To One Side’, a leftover from Zedek’s days in Via, where an extended guitar conversation, all high wild pitches and shivering slides, notes ripped, pulled and prodded, finally shows its hand to reveal a furious, spit-in-the-face squall of wretchedness. “There’s no-one left to come looking for me/There’s no-one left to come looking for you” Zedek howls, the impossibility of safety, of comfort, of actual joy consistently denied, the ‘message’ never sweetened by the swerving instrumentation.
There’s a minor disappointment here in ‘Orbit’ – something of a walk-through that lets you down only because for a moment you realize Come is a band, not an actual, elemental emotion – but this really is the only minor flaw among a murder of relentless, heart-picking crows.
‘Sad Eyes’ allows the most breathing space. It’s no less damaged, intense or accusatory than anything else on the record – it just seems beaten to the point of resignation, it’s fire smouldering rather than spraying up in great jets against the twilight. It’s a ballad if you want, a sequential duet that catalogues sins, apportions blame and then falls face first into the gutter of a seemingly endless, filth-strewn road. It is, like it needed saying, annihilating and utterly brilliant.
The way the record connects, through screams, through truck-tough snarls, through mercurial yet scarily precise noise, is a rare achievement. It can feel like too much at times, like a teenage crush gone horribly wrong, like the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know you have to face the consequences of some terrible act. Nowhere is this truer than on the aforementioned ‘Fast Piss Blues’. Omitted from the original vinyl pressing of Eleven:Eleven, it combines elements of jangle-pop with razor-cut geetar and Zedek’s finest, hardest performance. “I don’t remember being born” cries one of the great opening lines in hate-rock history. It lopes like the coolest, loosest pop, punches and pummels like a great metal song, it attacks you like great art. It’s horrible and tuneful, fucked and perfect.
Which is a fairly reasonable way to describe the whole record. On this re-issue we get not only the band’s gut-grating take on the Stones’ ‘I Got The Blues’ but a whole live disc captured (in kinda ropey fashion it must be said) at Sub Pop’s Vermonstress festival on October 10, 1992 where the band played alongside the likes of Codeine, Drop Nineteens and the terminally-underrated Sloan. It’s a sweet document of the night and of a band viciously tearing the throat out of some of their best material. For geeks there’s also the delight of hearing Zedek and Brokaw’s guitar parts separated in the mix – you can almost pick out who did exactly what if that’s the kinda party you wanna have. ‘Car’ is the highlight of this set, Zedek a monotone David Johanssen spitting “I don’t have time for this shit” then soothing “there’ll be no shame, don’t be afraid” – it’s sensualised, sexualised rock music that is gender-irrelevant and utterly unfettered.
Though Come went on to make three more extremely good records before calling it a day, it’s Eleven:Eleven that makes their lasting statement - disturbing, uncool, and so fucking vital it’ll make you punch yourself in the neck in a frenzy of self-loathing and musical ecstasy.
9Matthew Slaughter's Score