Review: 90 Day Men 5xLP Box Set – We Blame Chicago

Posted: by The Editor

Last year, The Numero Group celebrated 20 years as the most prodigious record label responsible for mining and preserving the history of obscure alternative music that spans across various genres from hardcore to gospel. When the archival label based in Chicago announced their first festival, Numero Twenty Festival, it included late 80s – 90s noise rock, punk, emo acts such as Unwound, Karate, The Hated, Chisel, and Everyone Asked About You and consequently fueled some of those band’s regenerative interest amongst younger generations despite their short-lived existences a few decades ago. Today any record store worth visiting are stocked with compilation albums curated by the label or reissued box sets that carefully and thoughtfully retell the story of artists who were often overlooked during their initial inception over 30+ years ago, and Numero’s next anticipated release is Chicago based post-hardcore / progressive / math rock band, 90 Day Men.

Remastered by Heba Kadry (Bjork, The Mars Volta, Slowdive) the 5 LP box set titled We Blame Chicago features the band’s three studio albums, a collection of their EPs, singles, and outtakes, an unreleased 2001 John Peel Session, and eight unreleased tracks from their earliest days. The box set also includes a 68 page oral history compiled by fellow Chicagoan Tim Kinsella (Cap’n Jazz, Owls, Joan of Arc) that features an interview with the band and others including At the Drive In’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala, The Get Up Kids’ Matt Pryor, Q and Not U’s Chris Richards, Calvin Krime’s Sean Tillman, and more. There are three different variants of the box set – Black Vinyl, Super Illuminary Vinyl, or the Silver and Snow Numero Exclusive which is the only variant that includes limited edition bonus cassette Orbit to Orbit

90 Day Men were one of those eccentric left field bands that were specific to a time of frantic-borderline ADHD-patch quilted-chainsaw buzzing noise rock topped with rambling intellectual lyrics that wholeheartedly belonged to the American 90s underground. Their first 7’’ Taking Apart the Vessel (1996) and EP 1975-1977-1998 (1998) grasped at fragments that didn’t quite go together but were smashed into place to form something jagged and tangible regardless of its overall likeability. Even though they were most notably compared to contemporaries such as Slint or Rodan/June of 44, 90 Day Men’s catalog suggested that they were just as bold if not more so in their experimentation. Their earliest collection of songs were most influenced by 90s era punk/hardcore Dischord bands from the DC area such as Hoover/ The Crownhate Ruin and Nation of Ulysses, along with bands such as Sonic Youth and Trenchmouth. 

Their debut album (It (Is) It) Critical Band in 2000 still possessed much of the same influences they touched on previously but incorporated more complex structures, jazz inflections, and a decidedly more progressive element that would eventually lend itself to their second and most favorable album To Everybody. Andy Lasagan who was a session player on their debut album as a pianist would become a crucial element to the band, influencing their sound with a more melodic approach for smoother, simpler,  and easier-to-digest songs. In between their studio releases, some of their most captivating songs were found on their outtakes, EPs, and 7’’ singles. From the overlapping satirical rant on “Methodist,”  to the incorporation of recorded dialogue playing in the background on tracks like “Orbit to Orbit” or “What’s Next, Explorers?,” or the jittery teetering of “Streamlines and Breadwinners,” 90 Day Men took bits and pieces from post-hardcore / emo / indie adjacent bands and turned it into something with its own dissonant intrigue and charm.  

In their final years as a band, they would have another EP Too Late or Too Dead +2 and their third and final studio album Panda Park in 2004 which saw them at their most removed as they drew heavy influence from artists such as Roxy Music and David Bowie and leaned into more theatrical and otherworldly sonic elements while embellishing their usual shout / speak style with more dramatic and elongated singing. Less than six months later, they would disband for good. 

On We Blame Chicago, perhaps the most interesting part of the box set is the unreleased Peel Session which includes reworked renditions of the aforementioned “Methodist” and an early version of the impactful closing track “National Car Crash” from To Everybody that captures their uninhibited nature and progressive experimentation in never before heard live tracks, allowing audiences a rare glimpse of them right before they reached their pinnacle as  a band. It is also evidently the only piece of live recording from that year that has survived, as no other footage is currently publicly available. The box set is a complete collection of the band’s 10 year output with an in-depth look at their origin and the years in between from the band themselves and the scene surrounding them that would appeal to any math rock / post-hardcore aficionado looking to learn more about these Chicago pioneers.

Known for leaning into their eccentricities, 90 Day Men were unafraid to make use of unorthodox time signatures and experiment with their varying musical palettes that would allow them to transcend any sort of limitations expected of any band. At the release of each album over the course of a decade, they slowly morphed into each stage a little bit cleaner, bolder, and more daring, constantly building atop their previous efforts and burgeoning with a certain verve and lack of concern for an audience. They were as avant-garde as they were punk rock and planted the seeds that helped propel the mid 2000s post-hardcore, post-rock, math rock, and art punk movements that followed through their innovation and unconventionality.

Claire Mooney

We Blame Chicago is available to order through Numero Group and streaming everywhere on January 19.

Loan Pham | @x_loanp

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