Due a vinyl repress from the excellent Music On Vinyl label for it’s 25th anniversary, Paw’s admirable and overlooked debut Dragline warrants a revisit – and maybe a reassessment as to why and how it slipped through the cracks.
I’m loathe to apply labels to alleged genre movements but in terms of rock/metal the Grunge explosion in the early 90’s emanating from Seattle was quite possibly the last or second last goldrush headed up by the majors.
The last arguably could’ve been the deplorable and much gimmickier Nu-Metal fad at the other end of that decade.
In 1991, if you were based in Seattle, wore thrift store clothing and could combine a moody verse with a soaring chorus your luck was in.
Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind had begun to shift serious units, connecting with a generation via their anti-image, brooding music and lyrics that dealt with depression, angst and basically real and relatable feelings as opposed to swords, sorcery and screwing chicks and every label was desperate for a slice of the action.
All of a sudden, the world decided that previously popular genres were out – hair rock, glam, thrash metal were now deemed laughable.
Def Leppard for example dropped the embarrassingly dated upon release ‘Adrenalize’ in 1992, although it performed well enough the band later admitted they took their eyes off the ball and delivered a record intended for a 1980’s audience to a world that didn’t want it.
They, and many others, would struggle over the next ten to fifteen years reduced to playing clubs or worse and releasing records to diminishing sales, it’s only in the past ten years or so have some of those bands found renewed popularity essentially touring as nostalgia acts.
Others desperately sought to absorb elements and contemporise sonically or aesthetically, but they met with largely the same fate.
In hindsight it seems like a pathetic attempt on those bands part to cling to their major label status as they watched those around them get ceremoniously dumped (Queensryche’s Hear in The Now Frontier anyone?).
A few managed to escape, Metallica and Megadeth on the back of platinum successes headed for more commercial waters whilst Pantera’s fanbase grew in numbers and Slayer largely kept theirs due to a resolute refusal to compromise.
Back in 1992 the rush was in full swing and Seattle had been mined clean, the majors quickly cast their nets nationwide and in Lawrence Kansas, Paw found themselves at the centre of a very unlikely bidding war (Notably playing one showcase dubbed “Search for Nirvana II” along the way), which was eventually won by A&M records who offered the band a three-album deal.
On the surface, there was much about the band to immediately and easily categorise and market them as a grunge act, however Paw were no box tickers and Dragline proved to be a distinctly different record.
Musically they existed towards the heavier end of the spectrum, some of the staccato type riffing recalls Tad or in places Helmet, though there are as many passages where distorted open chord progressions are employed.
There’s other influences in there too, southern rock, acoustic folk and even country on occasion – the pedal steel solo on Jessie accompanied by Grant Fitch’s echo drenched leads were and still are sublime.
Sloppy, Dirty, Menacing
So, whilst Gasoline may start the record with an atypical downtempo beat reminiscent of Alice In Chains with a suitably complementary riff you get the feeling that there’s an added intensity here and you’re in for a sloppier, dirtier and on occasion more menacing package compared to what their peers offered up.
Not to discredit what the musicians brought but at the heart of what made Paw stand out was Mark Hennessy’s Vocals and indeed Fitch and Hennessy’s Lyrical approach.
Clean sung passages by accident or design were delivered in his natural southern drawl and for the heavier sections Mark used an intense style that was borderline out of control – it always had me placing him in a dive bar of a Saturday night, intoxicated and ready for trouble.
There were no generic anthems on Dragline either, these songs told personal stories – stories of life in small town America.
This, for me at least made things much more emotive, with many of the earlier tracks exploring themes of childhood innocence; Broken Heart over a lost dog Jessie, Fitch using his brothers sleeping bag for comfort as a result of him being hit by a car, and Hennessy recalls an experience helping fishermen pull a catch as a young child – the youthful feeling of wonder and awe at seeing the creature turning as he realised that catch was to be killed expertly portrayed on Couldn’t Know.
Around the halfway point though, the tone shifts notably, and we’re presented with much darker themes, coming of age and the shadier side of small town life.
Hard Pig, Pansy & Sugarcane see the intensity levels ramped up several notches, with greater use of double bass employed and Hennessey almost exclusively using his harsher tone.
Although there’s still room for light and shade on the likes of Veronica & Lolita, the innocence of the earlier tracks has been left behind. Lolita in particular stands out as a particularly disturbing track. The subject matter tastefully handled by Hennessy, avoiding clichés and graphics the song still has the power to evoke multiple emotions in equal measure.
Upon Dragline’s release, the critics were aptly impressed, and the record was roundly praised, however the buzz never really translated to sales.
The passage of time allows us to reflect more clearly.
Some reckon that the album dropped just too late, and that in 1993 grunge was already 13 minutes into it’s 15 and record companies had already begun to eye up the next whatever.
Reality is though, even if Paw had’ve gotten their record out a couple of years earlier it wouldn’t have made any odds, they were simply too heavy, gritty and rough around the edges to have made a commercial breakthrough.
It can be just as easily argued that record companies got serious mileage out of this until the turn of the millennium with horrible hack genre soundalikes such as Bush, Creed or Nickelback shifting preposterous amounts of records.
On the touring front the band certainly put the miles in and seemingly made the right moves.
Opening slots for Tool, Rage Against the Machine and appearances at the likes of Reading amongst others were by all accounts a success but again, the numbers never really transferred to their headlining runs.
A show at Dublin’s Tivoli around 93/94 attracted a mere 80 punters for example. Bad luck? Or was it just the lack of an immediate and obvious marketable hit with a well-produced video to back it up?
Read My Writing On The Wall
Once the Dragline obligations were fulfilled, things never really picked up for Paw.
A&M had almost immediately lost interest (The story of any hard rock/metal act on a major in 1995) and so the worthy “Death to Traitors” was released to little or no fanfare that year.
In only a short time, the climate was about to shift again with just Pearl Jam from the original successes heading into any period of long lasting stability.
Death to Traitors is a noble effort, no mere rethread it took Draglines core and expanded on it, though ultimately at 15 tracks long it could’ve benefitted from a bit of trimming.
Perhaps the band knew the writing was on the wall and they left us with everything they had.
Ironically enough the only real touring the band got done in Europe after the records release was in support of Korn who unbeknownst at the time were about to become centre of the next major trend.
When the band returned from that tour it wasn’t long before they announced their breakup in tandem with the realisation that A&M weren’t going to come good on that third record.
Musical climate, timing, luck, label can all be factors in making or breaking an act but there must’ve been internal frustrations at play.
Travelling long distances to play to fuck all people will quickly sort any hunger, ambition and naive notions a band may have.
Personnel clashes seemed to have boiled over too, bassist Charles Bryan found himself out of the band before Death to Traitors was recorded and indeed the title track of that record seems to be an unsubtle assault on him.
Some pretty nasty/serious allegations aired in the track metaphorical or otherwise.
Paw reformed briefly for a handful of shows in 2000 and self-released an excellent EP called Home is a Strange place, but it was short lived.
Since then only Hennessy has remained proficient, issuing two books of his poetry and releasing music with 1950 DA and most recently Godzillionaire (Highly recommended for Paw fans).
This year Mark announced a rebooted line-up of Paw, who intend to play some shows celebrating the anniversary of Dragline yet it’s not quite clear if the band plan to tour beyond their locality.
Dragline has been given a tentative release date of October 12th.
For those that know it, it could still be worth a repurchase to hear it in optimum format as Music on Vinyl have done sterling work on other records from the era Therapy?’s Nurse being a notable example.
For those that don’t, maybe refrain from picking up Alice in Chain’s horribly sterile Rainier Fog and give a perhaps unfairly overlooked record from the era a chance instead.
– Greg Clarke ::: 21/09/18
–Thanks to Greg who suggested this article. Got an album you want to write about? Do it! Email us – email@example.com