Style: grunge, retro
Home: Seattle, Washington (disbanded)
Members: John Bigley ~ vocals
Tom Price ~ guitar
Charlie Ryan ~ drums
Robin Buchan, Jim Tillman, Tony Ransom ~ bass
If grunge or the Seattle music scene in general had come to be identified & made popular by any of the bands that were early on the scene, versus Nirvana, the musical landscape then & now would be completely different. While post-grunge would be a radically different if maybe a non-existent term, I mean, who talks about post-disco or post-AOR, for example? Besides the fact that a generation would lose its spokesman, maybe the last of the great musical leaders as who has come since Cobain & had his influence, Nirvana offered only a small piece of pie of the Seattle area music scene & grunge could have had a radically different definition with another piece of pie pushed out center stage. Imagine if grunge meant Mother Love Bone or Soundgarden or Green River or even the sludgy Melvins? It might to some folks in the know, but to the general public grunge is forever tied to Nirvana & Pearl Jam, one a punk extreme & the other more in line with classic rock & both with introspective frontmen singing mysterious lyrics like R.E.M. all over again, but both actually being second generation grunge bands far into the timeline since the label first appeared in the underground vocabulary. But, for a minute, imagine an alternative world where Nirvana doesn't lead the pack. Imagine if grunge had more in common with the vibrant blues shouter Screamin' Jay Hawkins than angsty punk rock, or if grunge meant dynamic & challenging rhythms more akin to Motorhead with the bounce of Bo Diddley & not a three chord garage band like the Ramones. Strangely, Nirvana might be the least musically complicated sounding band on the grunge scene & if it wasn't for the lyrical content & Kurt Cobain's charisma maybe the least interesting & challenging musically on some level. Certainly their lack of a cohesive sound, obvious when playing their three studio albums back to back, versus peer bands that found a sound & really developed it out doesn't really do much for their scorecard. So, fusing Hawkins with Motorhead & Diddley with taking a particular sound & just digging into it one comes to a particular early band that has since slipped through the gaps landing into history books but not legacy making books. In the early days of grunge the band that was in the lead was the now forgotten U-Men. They had a very distinctive sound that thrived not on contemplative lyrics but driving unpredictable & constantly changing rhythms that had a retro sound of surf meets punk, along with a vibrant rhythm section, a lot if not too much texture & they were the first band to tour outside of the Pacific Northwest. Where Soundgarden brought metal into grunge, the U-Men bring in surf/retro music & bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. Solid Action is a compilation culling from their seven year career that spawned only one full length & is a worthwhile listen for the musically adventurous that will leave no question about who were the U-Men & what were they aiming for. Though, it should be warned that where Nirvana zones out into a hypnotic trance pulling you in over & over, the U-Men are wild in everything they play & sing & while the songs all average under three minutes it can be an exhausting listen. Nineteen songs make it a long listen, particularly as the U-Men don't have much musical variety so by the end the similarities come out stronger than the differences. The final track is also an unnecessary inclusion of a live version of "Shoot 'Em Down". But, if you can get through the whole album, even over a couple sittings, one will be hard-pressed to call this anything but a great collection of a fascinating & riveting band full of experimentation & energy. This is also a necessary listen for anyone interesting in the history of grunge & the 1980's/1990's Seattle music scene. Especially worth hearing is the thumping bass lines that have a life all their own seemingly distinct but not from the guitar lines (for example, "Shoot 'Em Down") where the bass collides against the guitars in an interesting contrast to the Nirvana wall of sound where the trio of instruments flow in one thick more Melvins-esque manner. While the vocals are shouted/sang/cackled/snarled & all over the place sounding more like sound effects than singing & give the band a truly distinctive sound. Comparing them to Screamin' Jay Hawkins, famous for his classic blues quirky rendition of "I Put A Spell On You", is not too far off. When it comes to grunge it's hard to say the U-Men fit the bill, though that's really the secret of grunge because no two Seattle bands really sound the same & there is no real Seattle sound. How different the stage would have been if the U-Men led the pack from beginning to end. They may not have the moaning lyrics of Cobain but they make up for it with amazing challenging retro music that Nirvana never even came close to. Though, it's not for everyone and grunge might never have exploded with the U-Men as it sounds too much like what we've heard before, too punk, too retro, whereas Nirvana softened the edges & turned it into an emotional charge as focused as one can musically get & that everyone could enjoy regardless of what likes/dislikes they brought to the music. This collection covers pieces from all their recordings & includes all the members expect for third bassist Tom Hazelmyer, later frontman for Halo Of Flies, who was only with the group for one year.