“Hands down our all time favorite Melvins song,” say the liner notes.
Well, on the face of it, that sounds like a pretty weird thing for a band with a discography as rich as The Melvins to claim. “Theresa Screams” looks very much like a B-side with a cosmic significance probably not much greater than zero. It originally came out as part of a series of 12 7-inches released one each month in 1996, later collated on CD. To all appearances, it’s situated somewhere on the confusing border between space-filling throwaway garbage and precious collector-commodity (an ambiguous zone that Melvins releases have frequently occupied — cf. the entirely silent Shit Sandwich…And You Just Took a Bite 7-inch among others.) And unlike even the semi-notorious (and actually often diverting) fan un-favorite Prick, “Theresa Screams” features pretty much none of the things Melvins might be known for: no riffs, no drums, not even any kind of noise/sample manipulation.
Instead, it’s composed of an unedited recording of the hapless “Theresa” being goaded into recapturing an earlier and apparently quite impressive scream, her every attempt deemed insufficient by the engineer or unsuccessful because of some mysterious (read: non-existent) “slight technical hitch.” Near the start, Theresa says “I don’t have anger, you guys; I’m too mellow,” but with each unsatisfying effort, her screams become more cracked and desperate, closer to whatever the opaque criteria those involved are supposed to be judging it by. Exploitative? Hard to say — Theresa seems to be a volunteer, although she might not have had in mind the treatment she receives. Obnoxious? Perhaps, but although I concede that there have also been times it seemed irritating and unpalatable, I’ll probably end up on the wrong side of history by saying that, in the right kind of mood, it can be pretty amusing.
That’s probably the key. In the liner notes to the more recent (and unfortunately mostly underwhelming) covers album, Everybody Loves Sausages, King Buzzo says of The Fugs that they were “the kind of hippies I liked; mean spirited with a wicked sense of humor.” These words might just as well be applied to his own band — and to what, as much as any of the things they’re better known for, really sets them apart from many bands on their particular continuum of “heavy” music. For The Melvins, this particular kind of humor is a more entertaining stand-in for (real?) conceptual-musical experimentation, providing many of the latter’s effects — uncertainty of outcome, the confounding of expectations, and the opening of previously unimagined vistas of sound-possibility, un-easy listening, etc. etc. — without unnecessary intellectualism or the years of having to figure out the meaning of it all. So maybe it constitutes a more accessible route to the same ends — if you’re in on the joke, that is, not on the end of it.
Humor in music is, as everyone knows, difficult to execute effectively. To work, it usually has to be well-tempered, the right kind in the right measure; things to avoid (among others) include excesses of zaniness and goofiness, pretentiousness, condescension and straight-up smugness. But as Hobbes once wrote, “men laugh at Jests, the witt whereof always consisteth in the Elegant discovering and conveying to our mindes some absurdity of another.” Not everyone these days would subscribe to such a theory, at least as the sole explanation of humor; it seems apt enough for The Melvins though. Their sense of humor may sometimes be cynical or cruel, but they have managed to evade the above-mentioned pitfalls more often than not. Of course, there’s always a pretty fine line; which side of that line “Theresa Screams” falls on is up to you.