SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

PAW – DRAGLINE (1993)

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 monthly, and 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. It should have been Paw’s break into the big leagues, packed with pummelling riffs, introspective depths, ecstatic highs, and infectious hooks. A myriad of reasons contributed to the band not connecting with a larger audience, but none of these are down to the quality of the music and the passion with which it was delivered.

Paw was formed in 1990 in Lawrence, Kansas, by brothers Grant and Peter Fitch on guitar and drums, 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 is a distinctly “southern” feel, once accurately described as “heartland grunge.” Their sound is open and expansive, much like the vast plains of their home state.

In contrast, the sounds emanating from the Pacific Northwest feel hewn from the damp soil of the Cascades, the Olympic Mountains, and the Puget Sound of Washington State—much like its geography—grand in scale, heft, foreboding, and shot through with dark, alluring energy. The bands that exploded from the Evergreen State in the early ’90s were the arrow that pierced the mainstream—dragging alternative rock squinting into the limelight. But they were not alone; pockets of vibrant alternative rock had been cooking in cities and states since the mid-eighties.

What makes Paw such an intriguing proposition is how they blend alternative rock’s searing sounds with Americana’s rural honesty. They make it feel natural, an unconscious outpouring of who they are, where they’re from, and what moves them and their communities. Mark Hennessey writes of simple, everyday things in breathtakingly poetic and sophisticated prose. No other band wrote this way in the early to mid-90s.

Dragline was recorded in 1992 at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, which Butch Vig owned. It was the favoured recording location for bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Killdozer, L7 and TAD. Produced by the band and Mr Colson (aka Doug Colson), it sounds like you’d imagine it to sound considering its place of birth—huge guitar tones, hammer of the Gods drum sounds, thudding agile bass, and intense vocals.

The album opener, “Gasoline,” begins with Peter Fitch’s heavy kick drum and gunshot snare, followed by Grant Fitch whipping a churning, grunting riff from his Les Paul. Mark Hennessey slides into the verse with a commanding menace in his voice. The band picks up pace as the verse explodes, and Hennessey’s bellicose howl takes over. Smoothly shifting gears, they transition to a light, swing feel in the chorus. The lush arpeggiated guitars perfectly match Hennessy’s bruised and broken tone.

“Sleeping Bag,” one of four singles from the album, continues the masterful display of dynamics. A powerful verse gives way to a beautifully expressive, restrained chorus. On Sleeping Bag, we hear Mark Hennessey’s unique abilities as a wordsmith—his uncanny ability to tell unusually heartfelt tales in a way quite unlike any of his contemporaries.

“Jessie” was Paw’s “hit” single, released in 1993 it reached 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 of 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. It even introduces that most un-rock n’ roll of instruments, a pedal steel guitar, into the song’s middle eighth to devastating effect. Packed with thrilling dynamic shifts and blistering emotional sweeps, “Jessie” is a standout track on an album full of standouts.

“The Bridge” sounds warm and rich with its urgent riffs and cascading drums. Grant Fitch adds subtle, clean electric guitar motifs just beneath the racing slabs of distorted guitars, which resemble the deft touches of Johnny Marr during his Smiths heyday. Hennessy sings of a love that soured, “You cross the tracks, laid your head in my lap. Put your mouth on me for the second time. Pull your dress up slowly. It’s too dark to see good, and really, was it worth the price?” later he intones, “And do you remember, where you lied to me. Underneath the bridge?”

“Couldn’t Know” sees the song’s protagonist at a pier side. Some nearby fishermen call for help as they reel in a catch, a giant fish. As he leans in, helping to pull up the net, he realises they are separating the animal from its children, becoming mesmerised 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 the hopes that they’d obtain some degree of her perfection.”

The band is musically sympathetic, supporting Hennessy’s story with waves of emotional weight. The outro swirls like the deep currents the song’s main character calls home. Hennessy sounds haunted and ravaged as he sings, “Here’s the rub. She, she’s not coming back. And that’s why I sing this song. I could not know that my son. I could not see what I’d become.”

“Pansy” opens with Peter Fitch’s rolling drums. Grant Fitch unleashes a whipping riff splintered with shards of feedback. Hennessy roars, “I’m sliding back and forth, I’m a coward, I’m losing my control, I’m a pansy.”

It’s a gripping ride through an ever-intensifying soundscape, with Hennessy shredding every last piece of his vocal cords as the song hurtles toward its abrupt end.

“Lolita” opens with Charles Bryan’s straightforward, rhythmically beautiful bass line. Musically, it’s a fever dream, intense and dizzy, feeling like the musical equivalent of the room spins after way too much alcohol. Lyrically, Hennessy treads a fine line, probing the mind of a sick, demented abuser. “Every scar I leave on you. It reminds me of how it used to be. You’re just a little plaything. How come you mean so much to me.” This kind of first-person portrayal of cruel and sadistic reprobates is now a lost art, but during the ’90s, many bands used this approach to unflinchingly present the horrors of the darker side of the human condition.

The title track, “Dragline”, opens with blazing syncopated guitar stabs and Hennessy emoting like he’s gut-punched by every crack of Peter Fitch’s snary and kickdrum. “Veronica” begins with gorgeously chorused guitar strums augmented by perfectly placed bass counterpoint. Hennessy sounds weary as he drifts across the band’s dreamlike undercurrent. The chorus is like a freight train; the band pummels an exclamation point downbeat for each syllable of Hennessy’s passionate roar of “Ver-On-I-Ca.”

“One More Bottle” is vibrant, lush, and littered with beautifully arpeggiated guitar orchestrations beneath the tightly palm-mute guitar chugs. “Sugarcane” is gripping, replete with a stunning drum performance from Peter Fitch. His powerful rolls set up a boiling point tension followed by one of the most satisfying releases in all of ’90s rock songwriting. Peter’s staggering command of the kit is breathtaking as he pushes the song skyward.

The final song, “Hard Pig”, opens with a storm of feedback. Charles Bryan’s sliding bass and Mark Hennessy’s spoken threat of, “Get in the car, boy,” is chilling. The song’s riff is a blaze of stabbing chords and ghostly harmonics. Its tormented atmosphere is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. It’s an engrossing exclamation point on a spellbinding album.

For the song’s outro, Hennessy employs spoken word, saying, “I slam in sideways through the door. Sleek but not sober. Something in me, open, unfinished. I pull the sheet back off your unconscious form, shed the liquor from my Coke bottle. I get what I came for. I find closure. I take the matches from my pocket. Yeah, I strike one. I count to ten. And I let the matches fall, I’m a hard pig, I let the matches fall.”

Dragline under-sold (around eighty thousand copies), its singles under-performed, and the band’s headline tours were scarce and, in some cases, shamefully under-attended. But in so many other ways, Paw and Dragline overachieved. As a piece of art, it stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the finest releases of the time and, in many cases, looks down on them.

It wasn’t Paw’s fault; they held up their end of the bargain 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; we may never know. Music is subjective, but in the pantheon of great bands that deserved more, Paw certainly tops the heap of ’90s acts that need to be heard.

For the eighty thousand 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. LONG LIVE PAW.

Essential…!