Life Of Crime
(Touch And Go)
The context: In their Life Of Crime prime, Laughing Hyenas were a sight to behold—a fucking horrific sight. Jim Kimball squirmed behind the drums, his head cocked grotesquely as his skull tried to claw its way out of his face. Bassist Kevin Strickland lurched around like some tattooed, neck-bearded refugee from an Amish congregation, while Larissa Strickland stared, tangle-haired and granny-dressed, from behind her guitar. At the front stalked John Brannon, his eyes bleary and his whiskey bottle empty, gargling bile and writhing around the mic stand like a rattlesnake.
Mere months before recording Nevermind, Butch Vig captured Laughing Hyena's blunt heaviness perfectly on 1990's Life Of Crime, the band's second full-length. Brannon had already made a name in Negative Approach, a Michigan-based hardcore group that set loose his inhumanly crude howl. But Brannon formed the Hyenas to tap into the primal sludge of Detroit forebears like The Stooges and The MC5. Nudged toward the blues by Larissa—who, despite picking up the guitar six months prior to joining the band, wound up one of the greatest blues-punk guitarists this side of Tim Kerr and Jeffrey Lee Pierce—the Hyenas spent time imitating The Birthday Party before hitting pay dirt with Life Of Crime. The band toured with Sonic Youth and made one more album—1995's rootsy Hard Times—before calling it quits. Kimball eventually joined The Jesus Lizard; Brannon still curdles blood in Easy Action; and Larissa died in 2006 of a prescription-drug overdose. Life Of Crime remains the Hyenas' best record, and a hackle-raising testament to desperation and darkness.
The greatness: Saying Laughing Hyenas was bluesy is like saying Gang Of Four was funky. Authenticity wasn't the goal; instead, Life Of Crime mutates the spirit of Howlin' Wolf into a dirge-like, horrendously distorted wall of sheer despair. The disc opens onto the back porch of hell with "Everything I Want," a song that epitomizes that band's raw-nerved anxiety and ravenous undertow. Where contemporary John Spencer deconstructed bar-rock in Pussy Galore, Brannon and crew were far more stark and severe. Larissa's guitar, free of slides and solos, darts through roughhewn chords and clouds of toxic feedback; Kevin's slithery basslines fuels Kimball, a man who knows how to grind his axe against a drum kit. But it's Brannon's voice that commands—and simultaneously punishes—attention. Turning his chest cavity inside out, he reduces syllables to rubble and his larynx to hamburger while grunting away about poisoned lust, treacherous love, tragedy, and felony. Picture Afghan Whigs' Black Love burned to an unrecognizable cinder. Life Of Crime's title track is a slurred, drug-dredged take on The Weirdos' hardcore classic, but rather than reinforcing Brannon's punk pedigree, the song proves just how much sicker and stranger he'd grown since his Negative Approach days. Wedged uncomfortably between waning pigfuck bands like Rapeman and Tar and waxing grunge groups like Mudhoney and Tad, Crime hoed its own weird row in 1990, and it's weathered the years well. Kinda like a lump of coal.
Defining song: "Here We Go Again" is Life Of Crime's lone single—and the apotheosis of Laughing Hyenas' noxious, slow-burning rage. Over a gulping mudslide of a backbeat, Brannon hemorrhages 80-proof hatred as he details a mutually destructive relationship with lines like "Now I can't remember when / refresh my memory if you can / when's the last time we were satisfied? / couldn't stay away even if we tried." Venomous riffs and thudding bass notes punctuate his thyroid-rupturing screams—and the song's implied violence is almost carnivorously primeval.