MusicMusic Features

With New Bassist Steven McDonald, the Melvins Embrace Pop—Sorta

Melvins drummer Dale Crover has a story he likes to tell about the first time he saw Redd Kross play a show back in 1987 at the Crescent Room in Tacoma, WA.

“Everybody who was ever in a band was there for that show,” Crover says. “Soundgarden played with them, Green River played with them. I ran into the Nirvana guys there, Kurt [Cobain] and Krist [Novoselic], and I remember those guys watching the show and both of them turning to me and saying in this kind of snotty way, “Why are these guys so happy?”

In May of that year, Redd Kross was touring up and down the West Coast from Los Angeles, playing songs from the group’s secretly monumental album Neurotica. The McDonald Brothers—Jeff on vocals and guitar and Steven on bass—blended Southern California good vibes with proto-alternative rock and onstage posing. The group’s stage presence and chops both mocked and embraced the tropes of rock stardom on the level of KISS and the Beatles, but its raw punk spirit underscored a singular sincerity that tied it all together.

“That meant a lot to all of us,” Crover says. “People don’t realize how much of an effect Redd Kross had on the Seattle music scene when they came up there.”

On the surface, the freewheeling, elated pop dirges of Redd Kross seem like a far cry from the molasses-punk miasma that arose when Crover played drums on Nirvana’s Bleach. But when viewed through the lens of time, the influence is undeniable. So, it’s only natural that, 30 years after that fateful Redd Kross show, Crover and Steven McDonald have found themselves orbiting around each other. They’ve paired up as the rhythm section in recent incarnations of Redd Kross and Off!; they play on each other’s 2017 solo records; and now McDonald has joined ranks with the Melvins as a full-time bass player, as the group makes its way across the country supporting its latest double LP, A Walk With Love and Death.

“Black Heath” opens the album with Crover and McDonald locking into a slow and undulating rhythm that rises and falls with an oceanic sway. Singer and guitarist Buzz Osborne swoops in with his guttural and operatic voice serving as a counterpoint to the album’s driving bottom end. It’s a slow build to the colossal early peak of “Euthanasia,” which breaks swiftly into the fast-paced “What’s Wrong With You?”

It’s one more fine Melvins album in an ever-growing chain of essential recordings. Over the years, the group has worked with a revolving cast of bass players, including original bassist Matt Lukin, Joe Preston of Thrones and improv jazz artist Trevor Dunn. Big Business bass player Jared Warren and drummer Coady Willis even filled out the Melvins’ rhythm section for a stint beginning in 2006.

Amid the group’s trademark thunder, subtlety and change have taken many forms with each lineup. A Walk With Love and Death is a spacious album divided in half. The first half, Death, unfolds as one might expect, guided by a secret, melodic pop sensibility that flourishes with each passing track. The second half, Love, brings a dose of uneasy listening to the fold. Songs such as “Aim High,” “Queen Powder Party” and “Chicken Butt” are collages of sound steeped in layers of twisting feedback, musique concrète, noise and disembodied voices talking in no discernable linear conversations. It’s the flipside of the coin, a jarring, postmodern shift in direction.

The Melvins, it seems, are aware of the perceptions of bringing McDonald into the mix. The response is to juxtapose undeniably swinging songs such as “What’s Wrong With You?“ and the high harmonies of “Christ Hammer” with the most anti-pop document the band has created. It’s a beautiful, albeit challenging work, that keeps the band’s forward trajectory in motion.

Onstage, the Melvins still assemble a comprehensive set that bridges sludgier, early material with the more evolved material leading up to the new album—pop songs and all—in one fell swoop. “There are fans who won’t be used to Steven’s stage presence, or that will think he’s hamming it up too much onstage,” Crover says. “But that’s what we want. He makes the rock moves work because he’s honest, and that still means a lot to us.”