The Nation of Ulysses' history as a band, and how its members progressed posthumously, is semi-clouded in some sort of unorthodoxy. To start off, being a leftist punk band in essence, the usual blast beats and lightning fast, straight to the point three chord anthems are reduced to a bare minimum to be substituted by the even dirtier nature of garage rock and unnaturally trashy post-hardcore. Wearing uniform suits and shiny, squeaky cleaned black leathers slipped on their toes and heels, you'd think that they're budding gentlemanly entrepreneurs, unlike the majority of their peers, being "honest", "true to themselves" and looking somewhat like lowbrow hobos in the process. Ulysses, as they are affectionately called, are anything but simple, and love to complicate their ways to get their point across.
But that's not to say that their music in itself is untapped by influences, considering the level of conceptualization that reeks even from their photos in the album. Comparisons can be traced from the stage presence of MC5, and most especially, the undeniable methods of early Fugazi. Somehow they managed to concoct a mixture, resulting in an overblown, over-the-top, interpretation of their ideals in several 2-4 minute songs of sonic barrage. The Ulysses collective, comprised of 2 guitarists, Steven Kroner and Tim Green, bassist Steve Gamboa, drummer James Canty(who, incidentally, is the sibling of Fugazi/Rites of Spring drummer Brendan Canty) and the "mouthpiece" Ian Svenonius, who occasionally does trumpet, take time in dabbling with lengthy and indulgent articles and personal biographies pertaining to topics such as leftism and revolution.
Steven [Gamboa] announces candidly, "I'll burn the white man's house right down; I'll dance Swan Lake on his fuckin' face." Ulysses members nod their heads gravely, as if to say "He means it."
That's from their debut, 13-Point Program to Destroy America
, to give an idea on what to expect on Plays Pretty for Baby
's liner notes, which is much a pleasure reading it as listening to the CD, rich in write-ups about the band's activities in being a self-proclaimed organization in itself. It even uncannily resembles a later band's album's liner notes *hint*, depicting a number of photos, with a recurring motif of the past decades.
As the opening moments of the album unfold with a live speech, stomping rhythms gets things going, the feeling heightens. "N-Sub Ulysses" is one of the more conventional tunes in the album, and though the vocals might have mellowed out a bit on this one, his prowess as a singer was no doubt honed from their last outing. Their sound became more than a channel for teenage angst and rebellion as the grating guitars, leaning more on distorted indie rock that Fugazi trademarked earlier on, with Gamboa's commanding bass, and Canty's illicit drumming working as a unit make their performances rivaled only by a few in raw energy and explosiveness. This is apparent in songs such as "50,000 Watts of Goodwill", "The Hickey Underworld" and "Maniac Dragstrip" wherein the band goes head-on with its message of radicalistic change in society's status quo. Another thing to note about is the band's use of horns. Whether it's trumpets or saxophones, you'll always hear a squeal of one or the other scattered and splotched somewhere between the songs. "N.O.U. Future-Vision Hypothesis" being a laid back jazzy dub-inflected instrumental, and "Depression III", which seems to be the continuation of the previous track, this time with matching soulful vocals. Emotions peak in "N.O.U.S.P.T.D.A.", the record's climax, and the band pulls out all the stops. No, it's not the heaviest, most technical or most ear-pleasant of songs, but a ferocious one at that. Ian Svenonius is again tested vocally, sounding somewhat horrifying in desperation with his yelps and screams, proving his worth as one of the most intense vocalists in the business.
Like the devil, perhaps their decision to shed the old skin of a relentless, uncontrollable beast and slipping into something that looks and feels more comfortable did the band wonders to their forte. The start-stop, rock-all-the-way attitude of 13-Point Program to Destroy America
is replaced by an even wilder and thrashier outfit, but this time in a more stylish package that doesn't sound as monotonous and straightforward. With the help of producer Ian MacKaye, The Nation of Ulysses pushed their means of propaganda even further, without compromising any of their credibility as an underground act. What would be their last release in their time, with the whole group still intact, would also be their most productive one. The Embassy Tapes
was recorded shortly after Steve Kroner left, but even then it never saw the light of day until October of 2000, and it never quite got the recognition that this record got. Even though the band broke up some time after this album, their choice of dying rather than fading away was logical. The Nation of Ulysses never was complacent with anything less, being an aggressively conceptual and arrogantly charismatic band, who, in their 4-year existence, influenced groups such as At the Drive-In, The Hives, Sunny Day Real Estate and Refused among many others. And with Plays Pretty for Baby
, the quintet succeeded in finishing their final work that redefines their ultimatum: that "The Nation of Ulysses Must Prevail".