PAW – dragline (1993)

PAW – DRAGLINE May 4th, 1993, PAW released their debut album Dragline on A&M Records.

By early 1993, the alternative rock takeover was in full effect. Landmark albums were being released on a monthly basis. The world of alternative rock and grunge had engulfed the airwaves, magazine shelves, and music television. With such an effervescent wellspring of bands vying for attention, some were bound to get lost in the din.

PAW’s Dragline is one of the great lost masterpieces of early ’90s alternative rock. Packed with pummelling riffs, introspective depths, ecstatic highs and infectious hooks. Dragline should have been Paw’s breakout into the big leagues.

Formed in Lawrence, Kansas in 1990, by brothers Grant and Peter Finch on guitar and drums respectively, bassist Charles Bryan and singer Mark Hennessey.

If geography can influence the mindset of its inhabitants, then Paw’s Kansas roots permeate their sound. There’s a distinctly “southern” feel, once accurately described as “heartland grunge”. There’s an open expanse to their sound, much like the vast plains of Kansas. Which is in contrast to the Cascades, Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound of Washington State which much like the music scene from that region, creates tremendous diversity.

Dragline was recorded in 1992 at Smart Studios in Madison Wisconsin. The studio, owned by Butch Vig was the favoured recording location for bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Killdozer, L7 and TAD. The album was produced by Mr. Colson (AKA Doug Colson) and the band. Mixing was done by Andy Wallace in January 1993.

The album’s opener “Gasoline” kicks off with Peter Finch’s heavy kick drum and gunshot snare, followed by Grant Finch whipping out a churning, grunting riff from his Les Paul.

Mark Hennessey slides into the verse with diminutive menace in his voice, before the band picks up pace as the verse explodes and Hennessey’s bellicose howl takes over. If these shifts in gears weren’t enough, they turn to a light, swing feel in the chorus, with arpeggiated guitars and Hennessy sounding bruised and broken.

“Sleeping Bag” , which was one of four singles from the album, keeps up the masterful display of dynamics. A powerful pummelling verse, gives way to a beautifully emotive, restrained chorus.

It’s on Sleeping Bag that we get to hear Mark Hennessey’s truly unique abilities as a wordsmith.

His uncanny ability to tell unusual, heartfelt, heartbreaking tales, in a way quite unlike any of his contemporaries was a great asset to the band.

“And then the tears in my eyes,

Make the road all wet and hard,

For you to drive, you never, had a chance to see,

The car she’s coming straight at you,

What are you gonna do?

…Someone call the doctor,

And your dying and you don’t know,

You make me hate myself,

‘Cause you’re my only brother,

And I can’t say “I love you,”

And this is pretty hard,

You’re not around, so I can hold your hand,

So I, crawl, I crawl inside your sleeping bag,

And I don’t think, he’s gonna make,

Make it home alive,

Please, make it home alive…”

“Jessie” was Paw’s biggest “hit” single, released in 1993 and reaching number 82 on the UK singles chart. On the surface the song tells a simple tale of a man’s bond with his dog. But as with all Mark Hennessey’s lyrics, there’s real depth, mixed with longing, and a palpable sense of dread for its protagonists. Nothing is simple, nothing is as it seems.

Musically the song is impeccable and even manages to introduce that most un-rock n roll of instruments, a pedal steel guitar, into the songs middle eighth, to great effect.

“Couldn’t Know” sees the song’s protagonist at a pierside being beckoned by some fishermen to help them reel in a catch. As he leans in to pull up the fish he realises they are separating it from its children, he becomes mesmerized as he “…stared into her one sad eye..” stating in the next verse “She was eight feet long and she weighed four hundred twenty pounds..And I named all her children in hopes that they’d obtain some degree of her perfection..”

And it goes on. Twelve songs of stone cold perfection. Musically it’s beautifully diverse. Aggressive and tender, brooding and pummelling and always played with stunning conviction. Mark Hennessey’s many voices match the music for passion, soul and creativity and his lyrics are truly captivating. Songs like “The Bridge”, “Lolita”, “Sugarcane” and “Hard Pig” lay waste to the senses.

Many folks consider albums that have sold millions as under-appreciated. Not quite understanding the true meaning of the phrase. Dragline under-sold (around 80,000 copies), its singles under-performed and their headline tours were scarce and in some cases, shamefully under-attended.

But in so many other ways, Paw and Dragline over achieved. As a piece of art, it stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the finest releases of that time, and in many cases looks down on them.

It wasn’t Paw’s fault, they held up their end of the bargin in spades, delivering one of the standout albums of the ’90s. It’s hard to know where to lay blame (management? PR? record label?). Either way, at this remove, attributing blame is futile.

For the 80,000 or so who bought it on release, it’s an album that stands the test of time. Timeless in its sound and storytelling. To the uninitiated, seek it out…!!! You won’t be disappointed.