Nation of Ulysses wasn't around long -- only two albums, 1991's 13-Point Program to Destroy America and 1992's Plays Pretty for Baby -- but the quintet remains one of the best bands Ian MacKaye's Dischord Records ever produced. The Washington, D.C.-based group wasn't as influential as MacKaye's own outfits, especially Fugazi, but it was every bit as entertaining, five well-dressed kids wrapped in Blackboard Jungle ideology and desperation, out to capture "The Sound of Young America." NoU was deliberately vague, referring to themselves as more of a political party than a band, and spouting menacing slogans such as "Any Kid Who Tells on Another Kid is a Dead Kid." Yet there was something almost naive about the group's approach, as if Bill Haley and The Comets rocked around the clock until they ended up at MacKaye's house, only to leave a few hours later with the "real anti-parent culture sound." The shiny suits and shinier pompadours were part of the band's shtick, but it was just enough of a joke to disarm the songs, take your eyes off the ticking time bomb. The band may have called it "soul music" in the liner notes to 13-Point Program, but you can bet they weren't talking about Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson.
In retrospect, maybe they were. After Nation of Ulysses flamed out, three of its members -- singer Ian Svenonius (once dubbed "The Sassiest Boy in America" by, uh, Sassy magazine), guitarist-organ player James Canty, and drummer Steve Gamboa -- regrouped, along with ex-Frumpies bassist Michelle Mae, as The Make-Up. And even taking its members' stint in Nation of Ulysses into consideration, and the fact that Canty is the brother of Fugazi's Brendan Canty, The Make-Up has more in common with Washington, D.C.'s go-go band history than the harDCore movement that Svenonius and company grew up in. On its handful of albums -- including 1996's Destination: Love! LIVE! At Cold Rice, 1997's After Dark, and the recent singles collection I Want Some -- the band shies away from guitars for the most part, letting Canty's organ and Mae's bass carry most of the weight. They disappear into the grooves, repeating them until the tape runs out.
But the music is only scenery for Svenonius to chew, doing his best white-boy take on Prince, reinventing him as a preacher testifying to the congregation in his garage. It's most apparent on I Want Some, culled from the group's myriad seven-inch singles and compilation tracks, tracing the band and Svenonius' evolution. You can practically hear him writhing around on the floor as he shrieks through shout-outs to incarcerated Love frontman Arthur Lee ("Free Arthur Lee"), half-hearted apologies ("I Didn't Mean 2 Turn U On"), and gloats about his "Untouchable Sound." However, the Make-Up is at its best when Canty picks up his guitar and coaxes Svenonius back from over the top, such as on "This is...Young Vulgarians." It doesn't happen often enough; occasionally Svenonius comes off more like Screamin' Jay Hawkins than anyone else. Like Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up never quite gets around to washing its shticky fingers, method-acting through every song. They probably won't convert everyone -- fact is, Nation of Ulysses is still the better band. But it's fun to watch them try.
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