DC post-hardcore of the late '80s and early 90's, while undeniably awesome, could be a bit dire. Bands like Fugazi, Jawbox, Hoover, and loads of others were true innovators: they mapped out an exciting new musical territory informed by the energy of punk, the dedication of hardcore, and the tunefulness of pop, but they often did it with studious frowns. This was work, dammit, and important work at that, so wipe that smile off your face and put your back into it.
Which is why Nation of Ulysses were so welcome. Fronted by the preening, perfectly-coiffed, fetchingly over-bitten, and perennially deranged Ian Svenonius (named Sassy Magazine's Sassiest Boy In America in 1991), NOU were a five-man army clad in sharp suits and spouting a revolutionary youth manifesto founded on sleep deprivation, parent destruction, and insurrectionary separatism. It sounded cracked and brilliant, the product of over-educated, over-talented, and over-caffeinated punks flying on uppers and down with classic soul and r&b. NOU wanted to burn down the palace, dance on the ashes, and build a fresh new society. And they wanted to do it all for the kids, man.
Not only did they have a compelling schtick, but NOU could play, which is always a bonus. Listening to their 1991 debut long player 13-Point Program to Destroy America, it's hard to imagine this much quality racket being kicked up by kids barely out of their teens (or even in their teens, in some cases). NOU had a fairly sophisticated sound for the time, bolting hardcore tempos and distortion to bruisingly hip-shaking rhythms, finding the wide-eyed amphetamine fervor in the Stax/Volt template and upping the aggression considerably. Mouthpiece Svenonius spews the lines in a raspy, unhinged howl, and occasionally splatters some trumpet mess all over everything; guitarists Tim Green and Steven Kroner trade live-wire riffs and frantic rhythm chops; bassist Steve Gamboa and drummer James Canty (brother of Fugazi's Brendan Canty and currently bassist for the Pharmacists) supply the armored undercarriage, keeping things swinging even as they dish out black eyes and bruises. It's unrelenting and unsparing, a half hour of hooky, hair-raising pandemonium.
Album highlights include opener "Spectra Sonic Sound," a rushing mauler of an opener and sign of things to come. "Look Out! Soul Is Back" is as much a warning as a sinister, chiming statement of purpose. "Today I Met the Girl I'm Going to Marry" is a love letter from an asylum inmate, a stalker's anthem crooned creepily by a clearly enthused Svenonius. "A Kid Who Tells on Another Kid is a Dead Kid" bursts forth on waves of surfy crunch, a nimble, Descendents-like bassline providing bouncy propulsion. "Diptheria" slows things down considerably while retaining the LP's intensity, a slow-fuse of a song punctuated by eruptions of mid-tempo mayhem. "You're My Miss Washington, D.C." is a loving tribute to the District, a hometown shout-out masquerading as an urgent call to make-out. "So many things I'm dying to show you!" bleats Svenonius breathlessly, over and over. Run, girl, run.
13-Point Program was produced by DC legend and Fugazi main man Ian MacKaye, and he more than ably captures the urgency and directness of the band. Plus, the album's recently been remastered by the good folks over at Silver Sonya, so it connects even better than ever. The riffs are rawer, the drums are heavier, and the vocals are brasher. The latest reissue of the album adds 1990's three-song Nation of Ulysses EP, originally released jointly by Dischord and Olympia's K Records. A nice little gift.
NOU were a shining star in the bright night sky of early DC post-hardcore. They had the chops and the passion, but they also kept their sense of humor. They hit on a sound and style that has aged incredibly well, as amusing and exhilarating now, almost twenty years on, as it was the day it dropped. Listen to 13-Point Program and hear why the kids in the know used to mutter the timeless mantra, "Ulysses, Ulysses, little flower, beloved by all the youth."