After five years’ and ten records’ worth of trailblazing, the Minutemen pause to assess the landscape. Equal parts angry politics and affectionate musicology, 3-Way Tie (for Last) is about as patriotic an album as we’re going to hear in 1986. Not that “The Big Stick” will be included on the next Rocky soundtrack, mind you. “This is what I’m singing about,” declares the late guitarist and singer D. Boon: “The race war that America supports/And the fact Indians will never die/They’d do just fine if we let them try.” This punk power trio may be repulsed by U.S. foreign policy, but they display an awesome fluency in American music — rock & roll to you, buddy — and between its jaunty melody and Boon’s rockabilly-drenched solo, “The Big Stick” is apt to elicit as many tapping toes as raised fists.
Once virtual sixty-second men, grinding away over hyperinventive bursts of invective, Boon and bassist Mike Watt developed into songwriters whose originals stand up next to their covers of influences like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blue Oyster Cult. Side one is Boon’s, and his antiwar rants are at once more straightforward and more subtle than before. Rather than churn out musical ideas, he’s mulling them over, setting the ruminative tone of “The Price of Paradise” with a jagged lead line or summing up the threatening confusion of “Political Nightmare” with a power-chord-provoked landslide. One of John Fogerty’s prettier as well as more political songs — “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” — sounds strained here, but on “Lost” Boon turns a hazy Neil Young tribute by the Meat Puppets into a stomping evocation of suburban rootlessness.
After faithfully detonating BÖC’s song “The Red and the Black,” Mike Watt reveals the band’s more poetic nature on his side of the album. “Spoken Word Piece” lays it on a bit simplistically, but songs like “What Is It?” are pithy and quick, addressing Big Questions from ground level. Watt’s bass and Boon’s six-string usually share melodic duties; they build vein-bursting tension by playing crushing funk riffs against each other on “No One,” then provide joyous release by locking into step and dancing around George Hurley’s flexible beat on “What Is It?” Yet for all their utilitarian punch, the Minutemen can wax psychedelic (“Situations at Hand”), thrash like mad (“Ack Ack Ack”) or go all sweet and flowery on the sarcastically titled instrumental “Hittin’ the Bong.”
The Minutemen were forging a new direction by examining (and expanding on) where they’d been when D. Boon was killed last December. If his tragic death renders this an accidental epitaph, it’s an eloquent one. You can bet that in ten years there’ll be groups who sound like the Minutemen — maybe they’ll even cover their songs. No matter how one arrives at 3-Way Tie (for Last), these three guys come out on top.