Tin Huey

As a rule, defunct cult acts should leave well enough alone. Take Tin Huey, which rose from the same late '70s Akron, Ohio, scene that spawned Devo, made one well-reviewed major-label album (1979's Contents Dislodged During Shipment), launched a couple of its members on relatively productive careers (guitarist Chris Butler went on to helm the Waitresses, of "I Know What Boys Like" fame, while multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney became a sought-after sideman and quirky solo artist), and then vanished into the mists of time. These days, most people have forgotten the group's quirky pop, which dragged odd, Zappa-esque time signatures into the new-wave lexicon, but those who haven't recall it fondly. Shouldn't that have been enough?

Judging by Disinformation, the outfit's return, the answer to that question is "Yes." Granted, the CD's not terrible: The opener, "Cheap Mechanics," is moderately catchy; Carney's "Closet Bears" comes across as good-humored self-satire; and the live "Seeing" has a nicely skronky sax part. But nothing here is as edgy or extreme as Tin Huey's previous salvos (or the average fan's memory of them), and the self-referentialism of "The Tin Huey Story" and "The Tin Huey Story, Part 2" implies a certain overestimation of the outfit's place in the cosmic scheme of things. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Donner Party release, a two-disc set, fairs far better, largely because the material on it is archival -- the real stuff, not an attempted recreation of it. Helmed by Sam Coomes, who's now in Quasi, a contemporary cult act that pairs him with Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss, the outfit never truly took off outside its Bay Area home despite a talented lineup that included bassist Reinhold Johnson and drummer/vocalist Melanie Clarin, who went on to collaborations with Barbara Manning and SF Seals. But the tunes on hand, culled from two indie long-players and a previously unissued third effort, are so cheeky and entertaining that it's a pity they weren't more widely heard in their day. Highlights include the folk-rock-punk instrumental "Are You in Tune With Yourself?", a good-humored tale of putrefaction dubbed "When You Die Your Eyes Pop Out," the impassioned, feedback-drenched "John Wilkes Booth," the surf-punk rave-up "Blue Starch Acid for Baby's New Tooth," the wonderfully neandrathalic "King Chico" and "We Cannot Be Happy," which belies its name by spreading joy with every note. And if you don't like those, there are 47 other tunes to check out.

Based on Complete Recordings and Disinformation, Donner Party is a band that wasn't but should have been, while Tin Huey is one that was but isn't anymore. Tell the cultists the news.


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