fIREHOSE – LowFLOWs: The Columbia Anthology

Remember The Year Punk Broke?  Once Nevermind exploded in 1991, a major label feeding frenzy ensued for alternative rock bands. (I’d argue that punk shattered in late 1985 when Minutemen guitarist D. Boon died in a van wreck, but more on that later.) Among the most eye-popping of these signings – in terms of both label interest and band willingness – was fIREHOSE, even if their corporate debut technically arrived five months before Nirvana’s.

lowFLOWs is a value-priced two-CD set that collects the trio’s post-SST Records output. Truth be told, there’s little reason to believe it sounds different than had they stayed on the venerable LA punk imprint. 1991’s Flyin’ the Flannel is a bit cleaner and burlier than fIREHOSE’s earlier titles, a direction the band was heading in anyway. Its hit-to-miss ratio – which had always been borderline – stayed about the same as well.

Of course, fIREHOSE were simply the Minutemen with Ed Crawford replacing the late Boon on guitar and most vocals. Much has been written about Crawford’s more conventional approach (his guitar riffs are denser and his voice at times aspires to the portent of Eddie Vedder) but what’s really striking is the distinctiveness of the rhythm section of Mike Watt and George Hurley – who play the hell out of everything from the opening notes of “Down with the Bass.” The Minutemen refused to be confined by genres and so did fIREHOSE, although they pushed different envelopes. The spiky “Anti-Misogyny Maneuver” is the closest thing to a Minutemen reprise, but Watt further indulges his jazzbo tendencies (“Epoxy for Example”) and “Can’t Believe” sounds like a caffeinated Phish jam.

1993 swansong Mr. Machinery Operator moved closer to a standard rock album paradigm, for better and mostly worse. It opens with two of fIREHOSE’s most memorable and anthemic tracks, “Formal Introduction” and “Blaze.” But other than the temporary reprieve offered by the combustible garage punk of “Rocket Sled/Fuel Tank,” it quickly descends into mediocrity. It’s not surprising that Watt pulled the plug on the band soon after.

lowFLOWs is augmented with a slew of bonus material. The Live Totem Pole EP is the keeper of this bunch, laying bare the band’s influences via covers of Wire, Superchunk, Public Enemy (!) and Watt’s roughly fiftieth recorded cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “The Red and the Black.” Unfortunately, the rest of the extras consist of unnecessary alternate takes of titles found on the proper albums.

Many Minutemen fans conveniently forget that the trio’s final releases (Project Mersh and Three Way Tie for Last) had moved pretty far afield from their heroes’ landmark efforts, with checkered results. We’ll never know what path that band would have taken, but it’s conceivable the San Pedro boys would have wound up in a similar place as fIREHOSE. Given the price, lowFLOWs holds enough highlights to recommend it – even if I usually find myself reaching for a chaser of the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime or The Punch Line.

lowFLOWs: The Columbia Anthology (’91-’93)