Ever seen a lanky man walk onstage wearing nothing but a pair of corduroy jeans, a battered straw cowboy hat, boots, the lines of a bra on his chest and a handlebar mustache over his lip crudely scrawled in Magic Marker? If you ever caught the Cows during their most rambunctious days, circa Daddy Has a Tail or Peacetika, chances are you have. And while Shannon Selberg and his Minneapolis crew of malcontents laid out some sinister sounds that made you think somebody forgot to take their Thorazine, before or after the show they were just four relatively young blokes hell-bent on having a damn good time like anybody else.
In rock, as in life, the line that separates the genuinely disturbed from the bent exhibitionist is a fine one, and 1980s and '90s underground rock were ripe with people willing to straddle it. Jesus Lizard fans have seen David Yow's penis and scrotum--the infamous "tight and shiny"--as often as moviegoers have seen Harvey Keitel's, and some much more up close and personal than necessary. The hated one himself, G.G. Allin, was better known for his scatological stage shows than his mindless music. Hell, on good nights even Fugazi's Guy Picciotto flings himself around a stage as if his bones were soggy pieces of asparagus.
Providence's Arab on Radar gleefully falls into this niche of nitro-fueled funny cars. What sets it apart from the shameless brouhaha of a Lollapalooza sideshow act is that it sets its insanity in a truly evil groove. These Providence boys--vocalist Eric "Post-Traumatic Stress" Paul, guitarists Steve "Type A" Mattos and Jeff "Clinical Depression" Schneider and drummer Craig "Obsessive Compulsive" Kurek--crank out a high-energy bombast that's equal parts Big Black guitar abrasion, ornate Truman's Water spazzcore (think Spasm Smash) and Scratch Acid lyrical affront. It's not so much no-wave or punk recidivism--as it's often derided--as it is a bullwhip lashing executed with a menacing smirk.
In fact, a fair share of Arab's enjoyable folly is due to its wit. Album titles blend adolescent pun with mirthful satire--see 1997's Queen Hygiene II, 1998's Rough Day at the Orifice, 1999's Soak the Saddle (an allusion to menstrual accidents) and the latest, Yaweh or the Highway. It's the sort of verbal foreplay that recalls the Frogs' irreverence, but whereas the Frogs peddle political incorrectness with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Arab strives to make you genuinely uncomfortable. Pedophilia gets in the game on Saddle's second track (no song has a name, per se), as Paul muses, "Have you ever seen a teen-ager with a package quite like that? And I ain't ever seen a gym teacher so attracted to a student?" Admittedly, it treads dangerously close to trying too hard to be shocking, but there's a vibrant history of bands from working-class and lower-middle-class urban America dipping into Julian Beck-inspired aberration to get a rise out of an audience. But when Arab has all of its cylinders firing, it can scalp your skull from the get-go. And as Frank T. Vertosick acknowledges in his Parables of Neurosurgery, when the air hits your brain, it's a whole new ball game.