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Why Urge Overkill's 'Saturation' May Be the Most Misunderstood Album of Its Generation

EditorialVincent BlackshadowComment

Urge Overkill’s Saturation may be the most-widely misunderstood album of its generation. The interweb backhanded it (“stadium rock by clever post-punkers” or “a perfect swaggering blend of arena rock and power pop”) with local Chicago critics similarly dissing it (Steve Albini called them “frat rock” in his retort to Bill Wyman including it in a top 10 list for 1993, while Jim DeRogatis compared the record to Weekend Warriors by Ted Nugent). Universally, the record has been dismissed as… Redd Kross. And I suppose if these armchair-rockers only listened to the first 30 seconds of the first song on every album they reviewed, they’d be right about this one.

Before we get into the musical genius of Saturation, I feel obligated to outline the Urge Overkill aesthetic that, after 30 years “together,” has been obscured by a lingering 90’s fog. It’s all clear now, though, and it’s easier to pinpoint the minuscule yet significant velvety nugget that Urge dropped on rock history. Consider this: Urge Overkill had the most punk-rock approach of any band in the post-Nevermind era.

Don’t believe it? I’m not surprised. The root of punk rock is non-conformity. Not political leanings, teenage angst or the chaotic or even systematic dismantling of various establishments. It’s all about refusing to do what everyone else is doing. The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks… they bled this music not to be popular or even minimalist, but rather to give their middle finger to Journey and Led Zeppelin. The route was minimalism, yes - and the result was popularity. But the motive was always non-conformity.

"Everything don’t need to be the same…"

Fast-forward 15 years, where the genre derived from punk is now “alternative rock,” and the biggest bands sport self-conscious stubble, baggy shirts and torn jeans. They sing about disillusionment toward whatever is handy— the music industry, the opposite sex, stardom, their own mortality. Pretty shallow shit, generally, although some of it is just great music.

Saturation Catch-Phrases:

“Don’t melt away!”
“Dumb song, take nine.”
“I wish the Z-ball was the sun…”
“I’m playin’... did you even hit record?”
“Is he on the clock or off the clock?”
“Send in the butcher!”
“We’ve never recorded in the big leagues before…”
“Who played Judas?”
“You shoulda seen yo’ face!”

To put this in a light that even my musically-misguided peers will understand— you have your Cobains, your Vedders, Cornells & Corgans…and then there’s Nash F. Kato, Urge’s crooning, shade-wearin’, martini-swillin’ Iceman-slingin’ co-captain. If Nirvana and Pearl Jam were "modern rock," then Urge was "postmodern." From a purely aesthetic standpoint, they gave their (ringed) middle fingers to the guys that were giving their middle fingers to bigshots like Poison and Ticketmaster. Instead of writing them off as “Vegas revivalists,” critics might’ve considered them the hipster’s hipster, and farther into a punk rock personality than any Billie Joe Armstrong would ever be willing to venture.

"Come around to my way of thinkin'…"

Critics clued in on Urge’s tongue-in-cheek irony, of course. I’m not suggesting the band should have been taken seriously. At the same time, the DeRogatis’ and Wymans of Chicago failed to realize and perpetuate what was crucial about the band’s sense of fun. Even more damning, the greater critical community declined to validate Saturation as earnest alternative rock music.

So where does that leave Satch'?

There are a few Stonesy guitar lines, sure. There is that Doobie Brothers breakdown in “Erica Kane,” alright. And yes - it is fair to consider “Sister Havana” an anthem. A shouldabeenabonafide radio hit. But the songs owe just as much to Cheap Trick as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” owes the Pixies, or “Outshined” does Sabbath. “It’s a retro thing,” notes DeRogatis. What?! Listen to “Dropout,” or take a minute to find the bonus track, “Operation Kissinger.”

This record is 13 times as inventive as Ten or Siamese Dream. The atmosphere of Satch' owes a lot to the then-novel practice of pairing a directionless alt rock trio with a hip-hop production team. Phil and Joe Nicolo, professionally known as The Butcher Bros, make this album what it is. All of the sampling on the second side and the left-in mistakes throughout help Saturation transcend “rock album” status, emerging into “Warhol-esque pop spectacle” territory, as awol drummer Blackie Onassis once described it. It’s an art record, really-- and it’s a damn shame that few picked up on that...

What happened to Urge is bittersweet - though mostly bitter. It’s sad to think about a glum, dehydrated Nash Kato growing less sexy each year, as 1993 fades further into history and the Urge brand lives on through half-assed reunions and GenX nostalgia. But the attitude and music so impeccably and extravagantly displayed on Saturation are just as relevant now as they were when they were new. And if not, well, fuck. Still beats Weekend Warriors... 

Saturation: Song by Song

  • "Sister Havana": The best song of 1993, and one of the greatest of the entire decade. From hook-laden chorus to Pumpkins-esque sitar break… just a killer.
  • "Tequila Sundae": The brutal Hiwatt tone and flatulent bass synth give this one a very cool California feeling, but it’s actually one of the album’s weakest. It would make a pretty interesting Beck cover, however.
  • "Positive Bleeding": The Urge ethos. That slamming E chord in the second verse defines the song. Anyone who considers this similar to 70’s rock is either a fuckhead or knows some really good 70’s rock that we don’t.
  • "Back On Me": Many people’s favorite Satch' song. Sounds to me like a tame Nirvana impression.
  • "Woman 2 Woman": “Girl, what’s your sign? ‘Vagittarius,’ / But that’s not mine, so tell me you don’t want me no more.” A stage rush of hilarity, through the chaotic choruses and spoken-word sections. Brilliant
  • "Bottle of Fur": The album’s sexiest track, and also the most glam-rock. Complete with tubular bells and horn sections. Hubba hubba.
  • "Crackbabies": Just an absolutely wicked garage rock song. Note Kato and King Roeser’s studio mishap at the end - genuine or stilted, doesn’t much matter.
  • "The Stalker": One of the many inside references, addressed to a group of haters who terrorized Urge in their hometown, immortalized in this moshy, Bleach-esque sludger.
  • "Dropout": Yeah, this song is totally something off Highway to Hell. That is, if Highway to Hell had 90’s rap beats, a Bollywood soundscape, and beautiful lyrics and melodies from Onassis.
  • "Erica Kane": A manic punk slice of Husker Du-level aggressiveness and melody, followed by a great release in the loose bridge, which leads into a Mouldy reprise and then a snippet of… you guessed it, Hawaii Five-O!
  • "Nite and Grey": King’s finest contribution to the otherwise Nashier album, this song rocks in a catchy but very 90’s fashion. Track eventually fades into some memorable banter over the Mary Tyler Moore theme. Love is all around...
  • "Heaven 90210": A swoon-worthy, Strat-laden California poolside ballad. This song could be from 1971 or 2040 and no one would know the difference.
  • [Bonus Track] "Operation Kissinger": Good things come to those who wait (more than 20 minutes after “90210"). This extra adds yet another flavor to this rich cocktail of a record… the influence of The Butcher Bros. is evident and the piece matches the album cover perfectly. 

EDIT: We initially misattributed Steve Albini's "frat rock" comment (which was addressed to Bill Wyman) to Bill Wyman. Thanks for pointing that out, Bill.