What glad news that Babe the Blue Ox is back together, playing out and releasing new music. The Brooklyn-born art/alt-rock trio (now a quartet) introduced its jarring, witty and impassioned avant-rock sound with a trio of releases on Homestead, a reputable indie label, in the early ‘90s. These led to a major-label deal with RCA and a pair of releases in ’96 and ’98, right around the time that Steve Albini was setting us all straight in his famous essay “The Problem with Music” (later cribbed, or at least sampled liberally, by Courtney Love).
While I do not know the bumpy details of Babe’s major-label ride, it is not hard to imagine that it involved an Albinian complement of deceptions, disappointments and business-as-usual betrayals. What we do know is that Babe the Blue Ox’s worthy RCA albums didn’t register much at the register, and one of the most adventurous, original and entertaining bands to arise from the alt-rock milieu (and certainly one of the most “New York” of them all) didn’t make the turn at the millennium. What glad news that they are back.
If Indescribable were a record label, Babe might have been its flagship act. But always we must try. To start, let’s locate the turf from which the band originates and departs. From Seattle’s flannel army to the Pixies, from Primus to the Posies, from Bob Mould’s Sugar to the Lemonheads to Sonic Youth, alt-rock described a marriage between dissonance and disturbance on one hand and pop melody and pop values on the other. In this regard, Babe the Blue Ox was very much a band of its time. In its sound, you will hear the unmistakable earmarks of the alt-rock age: the extreme, upsetting dynamics; the crunchy core strength; the detuned riffage; the sublimated funk (and metal); and the occasional, big, Grail-quest choruses.
But Babe was quicker, trickier, wittier and just more artsy fun than so many of its dour, dark and terminally serious decademates – those who would envelop you in their cathartic feedback and assail you with their minor seconds and their harrowing tales of glorified addiction. Babe’s agitations and abstractions were a disturbance of a finer sort: Beefheartian in their scratchy, otherworldly precision, hip and weird in a way that was heir to Talking Heads, Television and Père Ubu more than Zep and Sabbath.
But art was not enough. A female-majority trio then and a gender-stalemate foursome now, Babe loves lavish pop and unbridled emotionality every bit as much as skittish, attention-deficient art-rock. Its members bristled, I recall, at the chronic Primus comparisons that they were served in their shared heyday. They were tight-lipped about their real influences, conceding only that they all revered the Minutemen. (And Babe does sound something like D. Boon & Co., as arranged by Alban Berg and fronted by Steve and Edie.)
They wore their campy, bleeding hearts on their sleeves and were never content with weird for weird’s sake. They wanted to make you cry and laugh as well as to dance some kind of polyrhythmic, postmodern red-ant jitterbug (driven by drummer Hanna Fox’s surgically spastic grooves). Babe’s four full-length releases and one EP in the ‘90s document this ambitious quest for a place where soaring, rhapsodic heartsong might be set – organically, unpretentiously – amidst a tic-driven quantum chaos.
Babe the Blue Ox’s principal songwriters, guitarist Tim Thomas and bassist Rose Thomson, have all the extremes covered. The deep-voiced and grizzled Thomas writes frequently about middle-class hypocrisy and myopia, exposed in cutting observations and devilishly good spot characterizations. The sweet-voiced Thomson favors alien, sometimes turbulent art songs of spiraling introspection. Then they sing together: moments of genuine and gutsy emotional lift.
2013’s Guilty is an off-the-cuff, easygoing return to form after a 15-year hiatus. Recorded locally and produced/engineered by a couple of local urban refugee heavies in Daniel Littleton and Chris Edwards, respectively, Guilty really drives home the point that roots are roots and that you can, and should, go home again, whether it is Sir Paul playing some skiffle on the ukulele or Babe the Blue Ox relaxing on the porch with some…angular, restless, mathy, neurotic guitar rock. The glove just fits.
Perhaps you have never heard of Babe the Blue Ox, like a couple of thousand other important major-label bands that no one ever hears about: the five of six that fail to turn a profit, the five of six whose hands end up tied in the fool’s and Faustian bargain that Albini described. I might not have heard of them, had I not had a chance to meet them and split a show with them in the mid-‘90s.
The first time I saw them was at home, at Cabaloosa in New Paltz. It was a blistering, arresting performance. They went from “who?” to “best live band ever?” in a couple of songs. Early in their set, I was approached by George Schaaff, the guitarist of the legendary ‘90s New Paltz band Silence. He yelled into my ear, “Who the &%^$ are these guys?” “Babe the Blue Ox,” I screamed. “They’re my favorite band ever,” yelled George. “I know,” screamed I.
That’s the way it was with Babe. If it was right for you, you knew it instantly and for life. Seldom have I seen so naturally appealing a live band: tighter than tight, but spontaneous and sensual, possessed of an unforced rock theatricality and a camaraderie, a togetherness that just glowed among the three of them. That – all the vicissitudes of the music business being as they may – is why this reunion is no wonder at all; just very, very welcome.
Babe the Blue Ox headlines the In the Pines Music Festival at the University Settlement Camp in Beacon on Saturday, May 25; other performers include Knock Yourself Out, Monski, the Stephen Clair Trio and Higher Animals.
In the Pines Music Festival with Babe the Blue Ox, Saturday, May 25, $10 advance/$15 day of show, University Settlement Camp, 724 Wolcott Avenue, Beacon; https://local845.com.