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Small Muff

The Yummy Fur's Caustic Indie-Pop

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IN 1996, high school student Kevin Pedersen read a zine interview with John McKeown, the frontman for Glasgow indie darlings the Yummy Fur. Two days later Pedersen chanced upon their EP, Kodak Nancy Europe, in a nearby Rockville, Maryland record shop. "I listened to the 45 for about a month straight," recalls Pedersen, who now operates the art-punk specialty label What's Your Rupture? (and will begin reissuing the Yummy Fur's catalog this year). "I just became obsessed. When I finally got the internet, the first thing I did was look up the Yummy Fur."

There was a dedicated slightness to the Yummy Fur. You can hear it in their 40-second songs and wire-thin sound. McKeown's quip-ready lyrics exhibited the same emotional thrift you find in many of his Scottish compatriots—mess-aesthetes like Orange Juice and the Vaselines, or twee titans such as Belle and Sebastian. Like these bands, the Yummy Fur made music lacking the Irish impulse to soar and the British eagerness to invade. Like Scotland itself, Yummy Fur was content to live off the coast of the mainland.

But even more than their geography, the Yummy Fur's peculiar smallness reflected their time—the '90s. They formed in 1992, the year Nirvana in the States and Suede in the UK brought a new level of rock historical awareness to the charts. Nirvana expertly mutated 1969 with 1977. Suede reminded listeners what UK glam looked and sounded like in the '70s, before it was gangbanged in a dressing room at the Meadowlands by the hair bands of the '80s. It was with would-be icons Kurt Cobain and Brett Anderson that the retro decade began—all surface and scholarship, like a lovingly packaged Rhino Records box set. It was up to McKeown & Co. to deface the liner notes with marginalia mocking the insularity of it all.

There was nothing obvious about the Yummy Fur, and critics didn't know what to make of them at first. Because they were witty, journalists wrote about them as if they were a DIY "Weird Al." Because their records were often lo-fi and caustic, reviewers accused them of ripping off the Fall. But among musicians they were revered. In 1995, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe endorsed them in an interview broadcast live on MTV. Almost 15 years later, an entire decade after the Yummy Fur split, Beth Ditto cited them as her favorite band of all time in the London Evening Standard.

A measure of success, sure. But during the seven years they were active, the Yummy Fur worked too quickly to worry about posterity. In '95, after releasing a slew of handmade cassettes, they put out their first 7-inch, Music by Walt Disney but Played by Yuri Gagarin Thus a Political Record. It was quickly followed by Kodak Nancy Europe. Both records crammed 10 songs into 15 minutes. The following year, their debut album Night Club had Melody Maker celebrating the Yummy Fur as "Mark E. Smith's mutoid wasted sons." Quite accidentally, they had maximized their cool quotient by splitting the difference between brit pop and lo-fi, which at this time were peaking in the UK and the States, respectively.

But pop and hiss were never part of the design. McKeown swears that with each record he'd aimed toward the layered sonics he admired in Brian Eno's productions. "[Eno's] Here Come the Warm Jets is everything that the Yummy Fur was meant to be," he later protested. It's an argument best supported by their last two albums, both from 1998—Male Shadow at Three O'Clock and their electronic about-face Sexy World. By decade's end they were done, a minted footnote fit for one of their own songs (but not before picking up future Franz Ferdinand members Alex Kapranos and Paul Thomson for their last tours). McKeown went on to form the beefier and less fidgety band 1990s. Keyboardist Mark Gibbon, with whom Pedersen briefly corresponded, committed suicide in 1999.

For many listeners, Pedersen's best-of Yummy Fur compilation will be the first chance to hear the band. Over a decade removed, they can sound a mite naval-gazing. But it's hard to listen to the Yummy Fur without locating the wisdom in caricaturist Max Beerbohm's own self-assessment, which he once used to ward off a publisher from over-hyping his books: "My gifts are small. I've used them very well and discreetly, never straining them." It's an insight that is applicable to the entire DIY ethos that shaped the Yummy Fur.

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