Friday, January 17, 2014

Flashback Friday: Numb by Hammerbox

Hi everyone,

I thought I'd try something. Every Friday, give or take a few, I'll do a quick write-up on an album from a band that was overlooked and is worthy of reinvestigation. Also - I'll try to pick albums that are available for free streaming over Xbox Music.

For my inaugural piece, I thought I'd discuss the album Numb by the band Hammerbox.

You can listen to it here:
Numb by Hammerbox (Xbox Music)

Hammerbox were part of the Seattle grunge revolution of the 90's, but - unlike Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam - they had more to do with the punk rock crowd that included The Gits, Nirvana and Mudhoney.

Their first album - the self-titled Hammerbox - came out on C/Z records and established their lead singer, Carrie Akre, as a force to be reckoned with. This album attracted the attention of A&M records who teamed them with Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn for their sophomore album Numb (1992). The pairing didn't quite work as well as it should have, but it's still a strong album, and worthy of a revisit.

Sadly - even with A&M's increased market presence - the album only sold to the Seattle faithful, and the band disbanded shortly thereafter.

The album leans more towards the metallic side of punk, but it's not metal. Call it fast moving rock, tightly played, with a melodic edge. Couple that with Carrie's expressive vocals (to borrow a phrase from AllMusic's review), and that'll give you a sense of what you're in for.

Give it a spin, and let me know what you think in the comments below.


Richard Barrett said...

My love affair with Hammerbox started Labor Day Weekend of 1991, when I wandered into their Bumbershoot show not knowing anything about them while my parents went to hear Tony Bennett. I was just about to start my sophomore year of high school.

I was lucky enough to see them three times before they broke up; not bad for being underage. They did another Bumbershoot show the following year, and then they also did a show at the Moore Theater with Imij, Sweaty Nipples (I think) and I can't remember who else. Carrie and Shannon from Imij did a duet together that was awesome, but I couldn't tell you what the song was. I had hoped to go to their EndFest show, but my parents put the kibosh on that, having already let me go to Lollapalooza that summer and being quite freaked out by even the indirect experience of the whole event.

Let's be honest; like probably every guy who ever saw them during this period, I developed a massive crush on Carrie Akre. Yes, she was ten years older than me and dating the band's photographer. So what?

My junior year, I tried setting up an interview with them for my high school paper to time with the release of Numb; I actually had a decent amount of success getting in touch with Harris Thurmond and setting up an interview time, but then, since I didn't yet drive, the photographer who did drive had no idea where she was going, and it was in the days before MapQuest anyway, I managed to get totally lost going to the location. I called Harris to beg for another chance, but he stopped returning my phone calls. Ah well.

I actually bought Numb on vinyl the night the my friendly neighborhood record store called me and said, "I have it, and I close in ten minutes."

I was convinced that When 3 is 2, if marketed correctly, could be the next "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; alas, Numb's release seemed to answer the question, "What if somebody put out an album and nobody cared?" In comparing "Hammerbox" with "Numb," it not hard to see, er, hear, what happened; the first word that comes leaping to mind about Numb if one listens to the two albums in order is "over-freaking-produced." Comparing the two versions of "When 3 is 2" is extremely instructive on this point; the earlier version is raw and explosive, and the later recording isn't exactly raw -- more like overcooked. It's still a great song, but the re-do sounds like some A&R guy heard it live, saw that it was a popular number, and totally misunderstood what made it work.

When Hammerbox broke up, I can't say I was exactly surprised, since they went from being the Next Big Thing to Didn't Quite Happen, but I was mystified when Exactly. The. Same. Thing, right down to the overproduced major label debut, happened to Goodness a few years later. I'm still wondering if Carrie Akre, clearly an incredibly talented woman, can possibly catch a break. Probably a bit late now to become the sensation she should have been, unfortunately. (cont'd)

Paul said...

(Sorry - I accidentally deleted the 2nd part of Richard's comment - and Blogger has no undelete! Here it is)

I was lucky enough to get to know Carrie a bit ~1998-1999, and ultimately apologize for blowing the high school interview (not that she remembered it), and got the chance to ask all of the (appropriate) questions I'd wanted to ask her since high school. Turned out that, up close and personal, she really was as cool as she had always seemed from afar.

When Hammerbox announced their short-lived reunion a few years ago, it made me want to cry, particularly since I didn't live in Seattle anymore and wouldn't be able to catch it. Hearing the Kufala disc of the EMP show, I'm not convinced I missed all that much, unfortunately -- it was magic that was going to be really difficult to recapture given how much everybody had moved on, and while it sounded on the recording like everybody had fun, it was the folks who used to be Hammerbox playing Hammerbox songs, not a Hammerbox show. Oh well.

The self-titled C/Z debut is still probably my favorite album, taken as a whole, by a Seattle band. It's a snapshot of something that had a heck of a lot of potential.


Paul said...

Hi Richard,

Yeah - their eponymous debut album on C/Z is my favorite of the two. I would have written that one up instead of Numb, but it's not available for streaming on Xbox Music, and I wanted folks to be able to hear it.

As you've mentioned, the problem, I think, is the production on Numb. The songs are actually pretty strong, but the emphasis on "being grunge" homogenizes the sound and makes it hard to absorb at first listen. There's a sameness to the tracks, which, although better recorded than the C/Z debut, makes them less compelling.

I agree - the best example of this is the re-working of "When 3 is 2", which is present on both albums. On the debut, the song starts quietly, and ratchets up the intensity every few measures. On Numb, it starts full throttle. Even though you'd think the Numb version would make an impact, it's the C/Z version that strikes harder.

My take on Numb is that it's best listened to in small doses, until you can lock into the whole album. Lyrically, much of the album centers on the rash of deaths in the Seattle grunge scene at the time - especially the death of Stefanie Ann Sargent to whom the album is dedicated - so that adds to the heaviness as well.

Thanks for your comments - and again - I apologize for the accidental deletion. Hopefully - I've put back all the information you'd posted.