On Second Thought
Local H - Here Comes The Zoo

for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Local H play music that is too harsh for power pop, too classicist for punk, not technical enough (and either too fast or too slow) for heavy metal, and neither self-consciously weird or self-defeating enough to be “indie.” Their most salient feature, before you ever hear the music, is that Scott Lucas (credited here with “the usual”) is a stubborn son of a bitch.

Can’t find a bassist for your power trio? If you’re Lucas, you just install bass pickups onto your electric guitar and do them both. Can’t get out of small town Zion, Illinois? Write a scathing indictment of the despair, hypocrisy and loathing of being stuck nowhere, with yourself as the first target (“You got no taste in music / And you really love our band”). As Good As Dead justifiably caught some attention on the back of “Eddie Vedder,” which deals with the same two things Lucas always writes about: the way we lie to others and ourselves, and the way most of us are fucked from the get go by our circumstances.

What happened to Local H next would have also been funny if it had happened to, say, Oasis (another band who wrote about the frustration of being a nobody in a small town): They got fucked over by events beyond their control. The follow-up, Pack Up The Cats took the same approach to attempts at rock stardom (such as the one Local H was making at the time) as As Good As Dead took to small-town failure. And then Universal merged with Polygram, and despite the fact that their single “’Cha!’ Said The Kitty” was doing well, Local H got dropped. Drummer Joe Daniels quit, and Lucas was left alone.

Four years later, he came back with new drummer Brian St. Clair and a new album. This record is far more stripped down and shiny than Local H’s past works, which suffer a little from the grunge-y production touches that often made them sound like a cut-rate, wise-ass Nirvana. St. Clair is a busier drummer than Daniels, but not by much. It basically sounds like the old band in top form.

Like their other efforts it’s not so much a concept album as Lucas taking pot shots at the same topics from a bunch of different angles over the course of an album. It’s not as varied as As Good As Dead, no thrashy cul-de-sacs like “Back In The Day,” or resigned mutters like “No Problem.” And the closest I can come to figuring out what he’s talking about this time is that Here Comes The Zoo is the depiction of the asshole Lucas may well have turned into if he had tasted success. And that asshole is complaining about his life, now that he’s got all that money and fame.

“Hands On The Bible” opens with a one-note piano ping and the sort of mock-epic scene setting that won’t make any sense until the end of the record, and maybe not even then, but it’s a great song; Local H’s two strengths reinforce each other so that when the lyrics puzzle the music is still good and when the music is merely okay the lyrics usually take up the slack, and when both kick at the same time it’s better than either could be by themselves. It resolves into “Half-Life,” Lucas howling, “You know they hardly ever give a leper a chance” and the most succinct expression of his pessimism yet: “Born to your station / And your station’s a curse.”

The first side cranks out a couple more quick rockers, but to properly get to you why I love this album so much, I’m mostly going to have to skip them. Much of the appeal of Lucas’ work is in the singing and playing, so it’s probably for the best I’m not going to wind up quoting line after line that really don’t work well out of context.

But they’re great songs: “Creature Comforted” and “Rock & Roll Professionals” (the latter with Josh Homme on sardonic backing vocals) are vicious stabs at the complacency Lucas never got big enough to inherit, tinged with the sort of self-doubt that keeps them from being merely sour. “Keep Your Girlfriend” is a portrait of the sort of sociopath that results when you realize you can get people to do what you want without effort; Lucas may start by crooning “keep your girlfriend away from me” in a mellow, I’m-telling-you-for-your-own-good fashion that bespeaks extreme egotism, but by the end things have turned brutal, screaming the truth of a thousand disputes about groupies and hangers-on: “This has nothing to do with your girlfriend.” A hundred pointless kinds of conflict litter the petty existence Lucas sings about here, and despite all that most of us (Lucas included) would probably kill for a shot at it. You have to laugh at it; what’s the alternative?

There’s a longer track, “(Baby Wants To) Tame Me,” that closes out side one, but it’s basically a placeholder. The real gold is in the closer. “What Would You Have Me Do?” is, from the title on down, a depiction of monstrous arrogance. It’s also an experience akin to going out to the cottage with a friend you thought you knew, only to discover as the night wears on that they’re very different than you remembered, insane, and possibly dangerous, and holding the only keys to the car.

It starts normally enough, Lucas spitting out a litany of post-failure questions:
Can you just go home hated
Half intoxicated
Hopelessly outdated
And not appreciated
Can you take the final blow and know that you fucked up?
Go state the overstated
Keep it complicated
The over educated
That hope you'll never make it
Can you take the final blow and know they won't be shutting up?
We’re beaten 6 ways to Sunday
Beaten 6 ways to Sunday now
And I am sorry to enjoy this
But what would you have me do?
It’s a great song, Lucas singing to some other asshole and yet not, imbuing the line “you really are the star of the show right now” with more sarcasm, almost, than it can bear; every sin of omission and pettiness and meaningless excess depicted paid back in full. And then, half way into the song’s ten minutes, the song takes a turn, and we wind up somewhere very different:
Hold tight
It's New Year’s Eve
It will be cold tonight
Kill the heat
And shut out all the lights
And cut the phone line too
We don't need nothing but cyanide
Pulled out teeth won't be identified
What would you have me do?
What the hell? How did we get here? Those lines are repeated for the rest of the track, as Homme, the girl from “5th Ave. Crazy,” and parts from “Half-Life,” “Keep Your Girlfriend,” and “(Baby Wants To) Tame Me” echo in the background. It shouldn’t work, but it does, hotwiring all the older narratives into some crazy-ass Heaven’s Gate style hideously overblown “solution” to life’s problems, the song becoming more and more monolithic as everything spirals out of control.

Just as Here Comes The Zoo is a record about excess and exaggeration, Lucas’ writing has widened out into the utterly fantastic. The story you can almost trace through these songs is ludicrous, blown up into a grandiosity that would have crippled As Good As Dead but that lends a kind of baroque desperation to the proceedings here.

Or, to put it another way, the way that gets to the heart of why I love Here Comes The Zoo as much as I hate all those, “man, life on the road and success are tough” records out there, Scott Lucas has made an utterly, unashamedly ridiculous record. I’ve heard people dismiss it because thought it was too over-the-top, too divorced from reality, but that’s the point. Here Comes The Zoo kicks harder than the proverbial mule and it mocks everyone, starting with Lucas. He’s somehow threaded the needle and made a record that makes you understand how shitty this kind of life could actually get, and at the same time blow that life up to such ludicrous extremes that the essential shallowness and deceit of that world is not only apparent but occasionally hilarious. The only other album I can think of that even comes close to grappling with this sort of issue so successfully is Pulp’s This Is Hardcore; maybe if Lucas and St. Clair made arch pop instead of meat-and-potatoes hard rock people would notice the fierce intelligence and bitter humour of their records. Local H have made the best parody of the perils-of-fame record ever made, but they’re so good they manage to also make it the best record actually about the perils of fame. God help us all if Scott Lucas ever actually does taste success.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2005-05-31
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