Head over to Localh.com and you might still be able to find an image of the cover art to Local H: The Island Years, the latest entry in Universal’s Icon series, accompanied by the following caption: “On April 5th, 2011, Local H will join the likes of Johnny Cash, James Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss, Hoobastank, and a select group of legendary acts that have been touted by Universal Music as representative of a genre and a generation.” Newcomers or casual fans could easily gloss over the irony and self-deprecation of this statement, but long-time listeners will likely crack a smile, knowing that front-man Scott Lucas is no stranger to either.
Ironic that a one-hit wonder whose most notable contribution to the world of rock was a single that topped out at #5 on Billboard’s alternative chart in 1996 should be inducted into such an elite (Hoobastank not withstanding) pantheon. Ironic that the duo should be honored as representatives of their generation by the very label that abandoned them during what should have been the biggest phase of their career. The late ‘90s was the place where promising careers as rock ‘n’ roll professionals went to die as the bottom fell out of alternative rock and the post-post-grunge scene failed to produce another Kurt Cobain. Many young artists were likely taken by surprise to find the market shrinking for their brand of Gen X angst, but in the case of Local H, the fall from major label grace seemed not only inevitable, but curiously fitting.
If there’s one thing that has marked this band from the very beginning, it’s a sense of… if not fatalism, then at least resignation. Formed around 1988 while singer/guitar player Scott Lucas and drummer Joe Daniels were finishing high school, the duo broke out of Zion, a small town in the wastes of northeast Illinois, with their 1995 Island debut, Ham Fisted. Lucas and Daniels’ place of origin was crucial in shaping Local H’s sensibilities. If Springsteen helped to chronicle the quiet dignity and pathos of small town Americans facing their daily hardships, Lucas chronicled their meanness and absurdity, from the “crass fat ass” of “High-Fiving M.F.,” to the self-loathing cynic of the song of the same name, to all of the sundry unmotivated slackers and wastoids that populate his universe. Like Johnny Thunders, Lucas’ characters were born to lose, and in their most lucid (and oftentimes drunkest) moments they aren’t afraid to admit it to themselves and to anyone else who happens to be listening.
Their big moment came in 1996 when their sophomore album As Good as Dead gave birth to the break-out single “Bound for the Floor.” Everyone who grew up in the ‘90s learned the meaning of the word “copacetic” from this song:
It’s actually hard to imagine a better distillation of the band’s aesthetic and philosophy. ”Born to be down,” Lucas groans in the song’s opening verse. ”I learned all my lessons before now/ Born to be down/ I think you’ll get used to it.” Looking backwards from the twenty-teens, the “why bother?” aura of apathy that pervades the song seems quintessentially ‘90s, but it speaks to a real sense of futility and entrapment that winds and wends its way through nearly every song on the album, and that’s ultimately what pushes Local H out of and, indeed, above the coffee shop ennui that their peers were passing off as rock ‘n’ roll rebellion at the time.
Lucas never bothered much with metaphor. His was the gift of sledge-hammer honesty, the ability to speak the truth so succinctly and directly as to make his meaning seem self-evident. This holds whether he is acting the part of the spurned lover in the break-up ballad “Eddie Vedder” (”Okay, I understand/ but I don’t wanna be your friend/ I don’t need another friend/ I’ve got too many friends”), the frustrated youth of “Nothing Special” (And I know I’m nothing special/ I know I’m nothing great/ I know I’m nothing different/ But I just don’t feel the same”, or as the inner voice of an aging punk whose best years are behind him, as on the blistering “Back in the Day” (”Hey, old school/ Yeah, you were cool/ But that was back in the day”).
Then, of course, there was the album’s crowning jewel, “Fritz’s Corner.” You don’t have to strain too hard to hear the influence of Black Sabbath in the two-note guitar jabs that play under the verses or in Daniels’s rumbling tom rolls utterly laying bare grunge rock’s perpetually divided loyalties: that barely disguised love for big dick classic rock covered with a patina of punk spit and venom. Named after the band’s hometown bar, the song could be a less homicidal second cousin to Big Black’s “Kerosene.” ”I’m not mad/ I’m just bored/ And everything I do is only because/ There’s nothing much else for me to do/ And that includes you.” Lucas’s creations are often unsavory, angry, or pathetic, but few sink to the level of misanthropy of this hapless drunk whose disdain for all humanity extends ultimately to (and likely originates from) himself. The song heaves to an end with a shouted mantra of self-pity, ”I’m always ashamed and that’s the way to be,” and the listener has no doubt that this is the voice of one who has hit rock bottom and then made his home there.
Pack up the Cats was the logical extension of As Good as Dead, projecting the anti-trajectory of the former album’s losers and layabouts into the operatic arena of Big Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. Cats centers loosely around a small town band that finds itself inexplicably standing on the cusp of at rock stardom, only to spectacularly crash and burn. The increased attention the band was receiving in the wake of “Bound for the Floor” clearly weighed on their minds while making this record, something that Lucas seemed to react against instinctively, as evidenced by songs like “Cool Magnet” and “All Right (Oh Yeah)” (”You could never figure out/ What was all the fuss about/ I know it’s only me/ It’s only stupid me,” are some choice lyrics off the latter). The album’s moment of truth comes from its lead single “All the Kids Are Right,” recounting with uncomfortable candor the band’s deterioration over the course of an important concert that leaves them irrevocably isolated from their fans.
Ironically, for a song about a disastrous performance, it boasted what could easily be the catchiest hook of the band’s career, and a great big chorus that was built for singing along. In a more just and equitable world, it was a song that would have solidified their place as a major act, but it never made it past 20 on Billboard’s Alternative chart, and subsequent singles fared worse.
By the end of the year, a merger between Island and Universal Music Group resulted in Local H getting dropped from their label. Shortly thereafter Joe Daniels left the band to pursue other career options. For someone who has made his career chronicling the bitterness and frustrated hopes of others, Lucas seems to have taken these events with relative equanimity (even towards the label executives themselves, as suggested by an interview with The Red Alert: “You can’t really blame those people for being worried about how they’re going to bring home money to support their family and what’s going to happen to their job… People are human and they’ve got to eat.”), and he genuinely seems to appreciate the level of creative freedom that existing on the fringes of rock culture affords him. He would go on to partner with Brian St. Claire, a veteran of the Chicago scene who had previously drummed for Triple Fast Action and seminal Chicago hardcore band Rights of the Accused, and the duo continue to release a series of increasingly more complex and mature records that could still strip the paint from the walls.
For a band that only captured the fickle attentions of the public for an instant, Local H has left a powerful legacy. Lucas’s engineering wizardry made it possible for a two-man band to sound every bit as rich as a full ensemble, and he and Daniels went a long way towards proving the viability of the rock duo long before The White Stripes or The Black Keys were anywhere on the scene. But more importantly, Lucas showed that life after the majors doesn’t have to be a sad cavalcade of county fairs and cloying nostalgia grabs, by continuing to release album after album of vital music. Whether Universal really realizes it or not, “icon” sounds just about right for these guys.