It’s 1993, the year Nirvana release “In Utero” and grunge reigns supreme, the band have changed the face of rock music, self loathing and dysfunction are now the hot lyrical topics, they’re selling lumberjack shirts in TopShop and heroin chic is reborn. Everywhere you look the wounded Beta male is thrashing around in his own blood to great acclaim.
And now Paw, from out of Kansas, who are signed to a major label (A&M), release their debut album, “Dragline” – an album full of bruised and bruising songs about suicide, sexual abuse and lost dogs. So they are bandwagon-jumping, arrivistes who history has rightly forgotten, right? Well, no. A lot of people, including myself consider Paw‘s debut to be grunge’s lost classic.
If you remember Paw at all it’s probably from the singles ‘Sleeping Bag’ and ‘Jessie’ that got pretty decent airplay on MTV at the time. Lead singer Mark Hennessy, scruffy, anguished, howling, broken hearted, very much the focus of the band. Listening back to the entire album now makes me realise just how central to the bands appeal he was. Musically the band are unremarkable, there’s no Kim Thayil-style psychedelic guitar heroics, or Dave Grohl-esque powerhouse drumming. The band work tirelessly in the background, grinding, squalling, battering, creating the usual sonic template but there’s no flash and little real invention. What makes this album special is the total and utter conviction with which Hennessy delivers every lyric. These are mainly songs of cars and girls, small town misadventure and little wonders, sex and violence. Hennessy makes it all sound crucial. You believe he feels all the tragedy and all the love.
”Dragline” is not a perfect record by any means though. In fact I’ve noticed that the first half of the album is dominated by Paw‘s one trick, common to a lot of bands, of dropping the tempo and changing the key in the last third of the song – the sad-eyed breakdown I call it. Still, it can be effective and on the only real music surprise on the album, during ‘Jessie’ when a slide guitar cuts through and adds country pathos to the tear-stained remembering of ‘such a good dog‘ you see the bands future potential and wider influences. The band did indeed explore a more country-influenced sound on follow up album “Death to Traitors” but although pleasant enough it lacked the punch of tracks like ‘Gasoline’ or the swagger of ‘The Bridge’. That country bent is already there, if somewhat hidden, on several tracks – acoustic guitars strum away underneath the electric riffs and Hennessy‘s vocal do take on a lilt and croon, he’s not afraid to sound folksy and unaffected. In the blue collar tales of father son relationships of “Dragline” and tales of car racing on bonus track ‘Suicide Shift’ Bruce Springsteen’s vast influence can be heard. “Dragline” does have its fair share of out and out hardcore ragers like ‘Pansy’ and ‘One More Bottle’ but the more you listen the more it’s the subtleties, along with Hennessy‘s scream, that make this album such a rewarding listen (and I’m still listening to it 22 years after its original release).
Paw aficionado’s won’t find much on this extended edition to excite them – most of these tracks appeared as extra tracks on the singles. I find the acoustic version of “Jessie” a tad anaemic, but if you don’t already own them “Suicide Shift” and the excellent thrashing of “Slow Burn” are lively rockers as good as anything from the album and better than ‘Sugarcane’ and ‘Hard Pig’ that close the album proper.
The downbeat ‘Imaginary Lover’ closes this version of the album and reverses the usual course by switching from a weary strum to lusty scream and an unusually showy guitar solo from Grant Fitch. It’s one of the bands best b sides and shows the strength in depth of the bands songwriting at that time. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m still listening to it in another 22 years.