Haunting. Gothic. The Flesh Eaters’ I Used To Be Pretty (Yep Roc) can also be described as dark poetic punk, with ambition and tone on the order of Nick Cave, executed by veteran master musicians. Musically anchored by Dave Alvin’s searing guitar work and Steve Berlin’s sax, this album transcends punk to, strange as it may seem, gothic and roots rock.
I Used To Be Pretty reunites the 1981 lineup of the Flesh Eaters, which recorded A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die. That lineup consisted of vocalist and songwriter Chris D. (Desjardins), the Blasters’ Dave Alvin on guitar and Bill Bateman on drums, X’s John Doe on bass and DJ Bonebrake on marimbas and percussion, and Steve Berlin on saxophone, prior to his stints with the Blasters and Los Lobos.
The lead track, “Black Temptation,” sets the tone for the album with lyrics like, “Keeping in motion because fear is an ocean / ‘nessing(?) the pain that flows in my veins / if this is my heart, with soul-ending sorrow / this dream of life is no tomorrow.” The groove of Steve Berlin’s saxophone transforms this from five minutes of unbearable droning into something hypnotic and eminently listenable.
Berlin’s saxophones and Alvin’s guitars shine on the album. Both have ample opportunities to play lead and demonstrate their chops on solos. Alvin plays with ferocity and abandon on “Miss Muerte.” Our editor’s son, seeing Dave Alvin play live, noticed that he played on the downbeat, an impressive feat. When Alvin and Berlin harmonize, they sound every bit as good, like they’re playing right into each other’s sound. They create an effect similar to what Billy Gibbons achieves on The Big Bad Blues playing guitar riffs into harmonica. (See our review here.) John Doe has his tricks too, though; keep an eye out for the bass intro to “My Life to Live.”
The Flesh Eaters, who have never toured outside the West Coast, have a limited tour in support in this album this spring. On the strength of the material in this album and the artists involved, these will be excellent shows. In all likelihood, especially for fans outside the West Coast, this is the only opportunity they will have to see this group perform together live.
I Used To Be Pretty and the supporting tour has substantial appeal beyond just fans of the band’s classic work. Fans of The Blasters, Los Lobos, X and its side projects, and Dave Alvin’s solo work will all find lots to enjoy on this enjoy on this album. The Flesh Eaters’ tour plays modest-sized clubs where fans will have the opportunity to get relatively close to the artists. In DC, they play the Union Stage, a more intimate setting than where Alvin and Berlin have recently played. Don’t sleep on I Used To Be Pretty, and don’t sleep on this tour.