Founded 40-odd years ago by sole permanent member Chris Desjardins (known as Chris D.), the Flesh Eaters came from the same late-’70s L.A. scene that yielded bands including X, the Blasters and Los Lobos—all of whom lent members to the Flesh Eaters’ touchstone 1981 album A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die. As luck would have it, that’s the roster that reconvened for the first time since then to back Desjardins on I Used to Be Pretty, the Flesh Eaters’ first new album in 15 years. Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman of the Blasters; John Doe and DJ Bonebrake of X; and Steve Berlin from Los Lobos form a powerful combo, surging along with Chris D. in what amounts to a master class in taut punk-rockology, with an antagonistic streak.
Chris D. makes the most of his all-star lineup, revisiting songs from throughout the Flesh Eaters catalog and laying down what in most cases are definitive new versions. “Miss Muerte” dresses up the lo-fi guitar churning of the 2004 original with a marimba introduction that gives way to a shattering guitar riff played in tandem with saxophone raunch. The vocals that sound far more apocalyptic, thanks to dire backing parts from Julie Christensen, Desjardins’ ex-wife and partner in the band Divine Horsemen. “House Amid the Thickets” takes on an unsettlingly sultry vibe by replacing the trash-can drums and smoothing out the herky-jerky riff of the 1999 version. “The Youngest Profession” becomes more terrifying as a deliberate, reverb-y snare-drum pattern anchors huge serrated guitar that ebbs and flows around moaning sax and Chris D. intoning the lyrics like a madman ranting on a street corner in the dead of night. “My Life to Live” is the centerpiece here, a blast of defiance from 1981 that doesn’t need much reconfiguring. Mostly, this incarnation of the band simply tightens up the searing guitar riff and plays with the benefit, and spark, of decades of experience.
Though the versions of the songs on I Used to Be Pretty sound fantastic, it can be tricky messing around with the alchemy of previously recorded music. There was a certain charm to the ramshackle, handmade feel of these tunes as they appeared on the original albums. That said, these gussied-up, more professional arrangements show Chris D.’s songs in the best possible light. Their power, their attitude and their sheer trashy abandon have never been more evident, which means Desjardins in a way is finally getting his due.