Squirrel Bait
Skag Heaven
Homestead, 1987

Skag Heaven, the second album from Louisville’s Squirrel Bait, is largely remembered for the big “what if” that if left hanging in the air. Made while the five members of the group were still in high school, it was the last record the band would make before they disbanded after graduating and dispersing for college and whatnot. That the individuals that comprised Squirrel Bait went on to form other significant and challenging bands further emphasizes the quandary of what might have been had they stuck together.

But perhaps it’s better that Squirrel Bait remains a brilliant flash in the post-hardcore pan. This overlooked gem (it received one reissue in 1997 by Drag City) captures the restlessness of youth, something that no doubt would have dissipated had the band continued. Often compared to contemporaries like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü for the midwestern accents intertwined in their noisy distillations of pop and punk (but not pop-punk), on Skag Heaven, more than on their self-titled debut, the band is more reminiscent of the Lemonheads—had they found a middle ground between Hate Your Friends and It’s a Shame About Ray. (Funnily enough, drummer Ben Daughtrey went on to play with Evan Dando’s troupe for a spell.)

The record races by at a brisk pace, but not so fast that one can’t discern the multiple moments where the band’s scraggly melodies emerge from the fray. “Too Close to the Fire” works with the same prototype that Guided By Voices later made their calling card—just one verse and chorus as the song fades out without ever overstaying its welcome. When the band does stretch out, as on the leadoff “Kid Dynamite,” the repetition of refrains like “I don’t need no pig stomping on my buzz” is to express some sort of frustration. It’s in moments like these where the fury of their attack is at its most fierce, but here too Squirrel Bait had an unnerving knack for hooks that shown through all the harried haze. On “Choose Your Poison,” singer Peter Searcy sounds a bit more desperate as he channels his adolescent ennui into a laundry list of diversions, but he still reveals a certain amount of tenderness. Few bands twice their age possessed this kind of innate balance of recklessness and songcraft.

Guitarist Brian McMahan went on to form Slint (with the rhythm section from Squirrel Bait’s first incarnation, Ethan Buckler and Britt Walford) and then For Carnation, while the band’s other guitarist, David Grubbs, was in Bitch Magnet, Bastro and Gastr del Sol before launching a solo career. But even without such an accomplished pedigree, Squirrel Bait was a band for the ages. On Skag Heaven, they captured a moment in time—both personal and generational—worth remembering.
Stephen Slaybaugh