On the inside of their most recent album, A Tribute to Music, there's a photo of an ecstatic Scott McCaughey, the leader of the Young Fresh Fellows, jumping off a stage -- and about to crash face first onto an empty club floor. It's a pointed symbol of the band's joyous, commercially suicidal career. Over the course of their now 15-year existence, the Fellows have seen Seattle compatriots as different from themselves as Nirvana and as similar as the Presidents of the United States of America sell millions of records, while they've remained unknown and penurious.
Yet the group's approach has been unchanged. The Fellows exist in a strange nether world of rock music, a place where seriousness is taboo, career coherence is an incoherency, and fun reigns. Within those confines, the band makes a sui generis giddy brand of pan-everything rock music like almost no one else. Their drummer, a grinning clown named Tad Hutchison, is one of the spectacular whompers in rock; their second guitarist, Kurt Bloch, fronts a band (the Fastbacks) that people from Eddie Vedder to many rock critics think is one of the best in the world. Their ostensible leader, McCaughey, is a genial genius who in his spare time is in about five other groups besides being R.E.M.'s chief sideman.
The Fellows' discography is complex enough to rival any British band's -- albums, offshoot-group releases, singles, boxed single collections, tribute albums, and compilation tracks have been released in various permutations all over the world. A few of the group's early records -- The Men Who Loved Music, certainly, and probably This One's for the Ladies -- are whirling, hysterical classics; their later records, from 1990's Low Beat Time to Tribute, released on a Spanish label called Rock & Roll Inc., are less stimulating, but still loads of fun. The dichotomy is nicely captured in the two covers on the new album: one a rapturous run at Kirsty McColl's "They Don't Know," the other an utterly turgid rendition of R.E.M.'s "Circus Envy." You haven't lived till you've heard McCaughey mumble, "The strong man kicked sand into my breakfast cereal bowl/ I'd spelled your name with Oatios." John Moremon opens for the Young Fresh Fellows Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St. (at Texas), S.F. Admission is $6; call 621-4455.
-- Bill Wyman