The Flesh Eaters released nine albums between 1980 and 2004, and at least 17 different people have played in the band under the leadership of lead singer and songwriter Chris D. (aka Chris Desjardins). But for a lot of folks, the Flesh Eaters' legacy boils down to one album: 1981's A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die. Chris D. long had trouble holding on to a stable lineup of the Flesh Eaters, so to record the band's second LP, he rounded up some friends and fellow travelers from the L.A. punk scene to back him up, which included three members of the Blasters (guitarist Dave Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman, and sax player Steve Berlin, who would go on to join Los Lobos), and two members of X (bassist John Doe and percussionist D.J. Bonebrake, who traded his drums kit for a marimba for the sessions). This "all-star" edition of the band only lasted for one album, but the churning ocean of rootsy menace they called up on A Minute to Pray was the best representation of how powerful Desjardins' songs could be, and while he made good albums with other musicians (especially 1982's Forever Came Today), it's still the high-water mark of his recording career. In 2006, Chris D. re-formed the Minute to Pray Flesh Eaters for a handful of live shows, and the musicians continued to play together when time and temperament allowed. Twelve years into the on-and-off reunion, they took the bold step of returning to the recording studio to make another album, and 2019's I Used to Be Pretty is, remarkably, very nearly up to the high standard set by A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die. As a vocalist and lyricist, Chris D. was and remains an acquired taste -- his corrosive beat-influenced lyrics and harsh, wailing vocals insist you meet him on his own terms, but his work is every bit as strong here as it was in the '80s, and his noir-apocalypse visions are thoroughly singular. And if anything, this band sounds even tighter and stronger than they did on A Minute to Pray; Alvin's guitar work cuts deep, Doe and Bateman hit a perfect middle ground between hard stomp and sinewy groove, and Berlin and Bonebrake bring an atmosphere and sense of tonal color that fits Desjardins' technicolor nightmares perfectly. Longtime fans might be a bit troubled by the relative paucity of fresh material -- I Used to Be Pretty features three covers and several re-recorded numbers from the Chris D. songbook. But hearing these musicians reshaping these songs is bracing and thoroughly satisfying, and the 13-minute journey through "Ghost Cave Lament" shows this isn't simply a rehash of old glories but the work of a band who still has new avenues to explore. I Used to Be Pretty is an unexpected triumph from a band far too compelling to be a one-off.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming