Quick history lesson: By 1992, Urge Overkill had already established itself both in the fairly unforgiving Chicago music scene and on the North American college radio circuit with the help of albums like Americruiser and The Supersonic Storybook. Not only that, the band has cut a fairly striking and peerless image; unlike so many other alt-rock groups who preferred to mix, match and intertwine vintage sonics with a post-modern vibe and simply leave the results to be judged on those merits (see Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney etc.), Urge Overkill really liked to play up the stylish and sarcastic sides of their music and its presentation and make sure no one could miss them. It is for those reasons that the band’s impressive suits, hooks identified as “similar to those of the Rolling Stones” and covers of material by the likes of Neil Diamond and Glen Campbell played so well into their identity – they were already playing the “cooler than you” card and goofing on people like superstars, they just hadn’t secured the mantle for themselves yet.
Being short the ‘superstar’ title for their job description was precisely the problem Urge Overkill sought to solve with Saturation, their fourth album. The band boldly sought to create a hit record at a time when everyone viewed mainstream success with suspicion. To achieve that, the band enlisted the Butcher Brothers (who’s credits at that time included a host of Columbia and Ruffhouse Records artists, but not a whole lot in the realm of alternative rock) and pushed smoothly-intoned guitarist/singer Nathan “Nash Kato” Kaatrud up to do more of the lead vocals on the album (because it had worked so well on the band’s landmark cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” the year before) for a change.
The idea seems like it shouldn’t at all have been a tremendous risk, but there’s no question that it was; thanks to Nirvana and Pearl Jam (who have achieved tremendous success around the same time), punk rock ethics had become a fantastic tag of credibility in the mainstream, and the curse of being called a “sell out” was tantamount to death – so swimming against the proverbial current seemed like the height of a dicey proposition.
Under normal circumstances, such ambition and obvious posturing as that which Urge Overkill attempted with Saturation could have been brutally rebuffed – especially when one considers the “anti-image” stance that the biggest names in the game were taking at the time – but that no such thing happened to Urge Overkill speaks volume toward just how good Saturation proved to be. In this case, the quality of the music and the presentation of it totally undermined any and all dogmatic thinking about what needed to be present on a record in the grunge era, and that Saturation was able to do that remains a thing of beauty to this day.
From the moment “Sister Havana” swishes in to open Saturation suavely, listeners who were already familiar with Urge Overkill from earlier albums will instantly be able to pick out and appreciate the difference between this album and everything that preceded it. Here, the sound is a perfect fusion of post-punk, alt- and classic rock but, unlike other bands who had already turned such fare into platinum sales (like Pearl Jam and, to a lesser degree, Soundgarden), Urge changes the dates affixed to their musical mosaic and so achieves both a different sound and image.
While other acts were mixing classics like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Pink Floyd with their muses for the music they were making in the early Nineties, Urge Overkill was brashly getting a little more “second gen” in their focus. Yes, the Stones still factor into the slick tones and vibe of “Sister Havana,” but there’s also a polish about the song comparable to the likes of Mott The Hoople and the Sweet.
It’s bold and brash and, with both grunge and alternative rock having already cemented themselves into the public conversation by ’93, “Sister Havana” feels like a move forward because lyrics like, “She’s comin’ on like a bicycle army/ Everybody’s waitin’ for the man to come down from the tower” feel like filler in print but fly high thanks to Nash Kato’s fantastic vocal performance. Simply said, the song gets over in spite of itself because the hook, melody and performance are absolutely flawless. It doesn’t exactly set the standard for the album (there are songs which are obviously more poignant and affecting than this in the album’s running) but it is an excellent and anthemic beginning and does leave listeners ready for more.
After “Sister Havana,” the A-side of Saturation doesn’t quite hit the same level of formulaic “mainstream alt-rock” bliss again, but it does open some avenues which hadn’t yet been explored at the time. “Tequila Sundae” Kato and Roeser collaborate on a vocal which delivers the perfect aural equivalent to unease which has ever been found anywhere else in pop, while the crunchy and malignant guitar figure in the song makes the sense of disgust in the song palpable in a way that lines like “Got no time for stimulation/Daylight runs and runs for hours/In a cold sweat under the black sun showers” just don’t articulate as well.
“Positive Bleeding” carries the lick from “Tequila Sundae” as far as its intro before the song falls into AOR convention with lines like “People just like me who go it alone/ ‘Cause baby I’m a rolling stone” and introducing it to a healthy dose of irony with the help of Nash Kato’s vocal, which manages to cross “sweet” and “snide” tones like a seasoned punk rock veteran. Roeser follows that with the comparatively subdued-in-performance but damning-in-fact “Back On Me” before burning through the more-punk-than-alt- “Woman 2 Woman” and closing the side with the “half Stones, half Heartbreakers” workshop which is “Bottle Of Fur.”
There, Kato starts out messing around with ideas which fall squarely into the realm of “classic rock orthodoxy” (check out the images of sailing away on a crystal ship in a bottle) before spontaneously mutating into a form which extolls loss against a ballad of beautiful words (“Bottle of fur/Missing the smell of her”). Since 1993, “Bottle Of Fur” has always hung together a little awkwardly on its own but, placed with the other cuts as it is on the A-side, the song continues to play very much like a strange-but-strong hit and can effortlessly keep first-time listeners engaged and interested to see where the album goes on its B-side.
As soon as a record player’s needle sinks into the B-side of Saturation, it sets itself up as a very, very different entity from its counterpart. While the A-side consistently showcased Urge Overkill’s mainstream ambitions (how offbeat they might have been is for listeners to decide, individually), the B-side ducks convention and melts minds with the aggressive, scabrous rock-punk blast of “Crackbabies.” There, after a gentle, tentative and fairly morose keyboard passage opens the song, a lean, buzzing and angry guitar perches over listeners ready to assault them at any moment while King Roeser hints that all things may come to a gruesome end at any moment with the words, “Crackbaby, out of time.”
Even now, twenty-five years after the album’s original release, “Crackbaby” is still able to surprise the unsuspecting because it’s so totally unlike everything which has played through on Saturation to that point; the slick and seamless production values affixed to the songs on the album’s A-side are completely absent from “Crackbaby,” and the song somehow rips through like a breath of fresh hair raggedly gasped rather than an ill wind as a result. The hits on the A-side of Saturation sound good, but “Crackbaby” sounds REAL.
That sudden sonic shift informs the boozy and stoned vibe of “The Stalker” – the second cut on the B-side – which also manages to play like a MASH note to the Chicago scene (which included Steve Albini, Liz Phair and Kill Hannah, at that time) and loses the sheen of the A-side’s production value to marvellous effect.
“Dropout” STAYS outside of the production bubble and plays like the album’s real oddball cut with acoustic guitar and a manufactured beat supplying the lion’s share of the accompaniment for Roeser’s uncharacteristically timid vocal before “Erica Kane” speeds up and singes nerves with the closest to a genuine punk ear bleeder to be found anywhere on the album.
Night And Grey” slides through another molten moment caustically, and then “Heaven 90210” closes both the side and the album with some odd found-audio loops and a fantastic, balladesque number which feels simultaneously very sweet and very carefully constructed to play sweetly.
Unlike its CD counterpart, the new vinyl reissue of Saturation cuts the unlisted “hidden” song “Operation Kissinger” from the record’s running but, really, only the most devout super-fans are likely to notice; between the A- and B-sides of this transparent blue Porterhouse reissue, fans will find everything they ache to hear from this album, presented perfectly. Without meaning to overstate the point, this reissue of Urge Overkill’s Saturation is the BEST way to experience the album.