by John Heyer.
Here are 5 radio stations in Pittsburgh, the closest city to which I live. The Alternative Rock station, Classic/new Rock station, the new Rock/Classic station, The Purely Classic Rock Station, and the Top 40 Station. What do they have in common? Yes, they are all rock stations in Pittsburgh, but there's something that began in the last few years which has irritated me to near insanity.
They all play the same songs.
While this "everything under one roof/Walmart" policy might appeal to some, I like to hear alternative music on the alternative station, and classic rock on the classic rock station, thank you very much. The Wallflowers, Alanis Morrisette, Tonic, Meredith Brooks, Verve Pipe, and many others have somehow been able to float around with a somewhat alternative label, but how can something be alternative when it's accessible to 99% of all the people in the world? They're mainstream Pop/Rock, pure and simple. Just because you swear in your songs or throw in a retro drum sound doesn't mean you're any different from Van Halen or Aerosmith. But I think I'm the only person in the world bothered by this. According to everyone, new, exciting stuff is happening, but I just don't see it. While the rest of the world is talking about how much "Bush Rocks", all I can think of is how pathetically boring their music is.
There is, however, a band that you probably won't hear on any radio station this summer. No, they're not some underground freak band. In fact, they've headlined Loolapalooza, opened for U2, played Woodstock '94, and even been nominated for a Grammy. So who is this band? Well, they are a band that will likely make 99% of all people want to barf, but to the remaining one percent, they are Gods.
Les Claypool - 6 and 4 String Basses, Upright Bass, Vocals
Larry LaLonde - Guitar
Brain - Drums and Percussion
As usual, much has changed since Primus's last release, Tales From the Punchbowl, two years ago. First of all, Primus has a new drummer, Brain, whose hard, pounding sound is quite different from Tim Alexander's sharp progressive drumming. Bassist/Singer Les Claypool has released a solo album far away from anything either Primus or perhaps even Sausage (a 1994 Side Project) would touch, and the recording equipment in Claypool's Rancho Relaxo home has been replaced with a complete analog system. Most importantly, Primus now finds itself in a class with very few peers. With the Chili Peppers chilling out and Pearl Jam the only strong, unified band left that surfaced in the early nineties, Primus has found itself alone, stepping into a wasteland of alterna-pop with a new, 15 track CD simply called, "Brown Album". While it may seem odd to put Primus of all bands in a messiac role, it is something they are well aware of and seemingly willing to accept. Anybody doubting the band's desire to cut something great clearly has no idea how seriously the members of Primus take their music.
`The Return of Sathington Willoby' is of course a reference to one of the many "little ditties" Primus has done over the years. However, this is not a little ditty, but instead a very well done, highly entertaining intro song. The first two minutes sound horrible, but unlike Primus's previous disasters, it's done on purpose. As Claypool's bass doinks out a note every few measures, we hear the voice of the fictional Nixon-ish politician begin his convention speech to his fellow party members. Suddenly, a crowd cheer bursts in and the song changes tempo to become an all-out funk fest. While Claypool lays down his traditional slapping, LaLonde grinds, skips, and stutters through his high guitar part. Toward the end of the song, Primus fans will "get it" that Primus is of course mocking this conservative thought, comparing its bland and unimaginative philosophy to their own way of life. Very few bands would have the confidence or creativity to do something like this, let alone put it on the first track.
I think `Fisticuffs' does what Primus has tried several times, but never done successfully: dark, macabre lyrics and sound that somehow is delightfully enjoyable. This dark tale of 1800s boxing is simply complete in every respect, from Claypool's bouncy bass line to LaLonde's blistering solo to Brain's masterful off-beat, hard pounding drum beats. Needless to say, the lyrics are perfectly visual and the story is one that should be told over and over. Although any fan will be familiar with Primus's "dark side" (Bob, Glass Sandwich), but they've never come through as much fun, which this song is.
`Golden Boy' is about as close to traditional, accessible hard rock as Primus will come. This also marks a first for Primus- during the verses, LaLonde plays the main riff while Claypool simply strums out chords. The solo by Lalonde is fantastic, while Claypool repeats the carnival-like introduction. Brain is able to show that he can be an effective finesse drummer, and keeps the pace nicely with a lot of action on the high hat. One of the coolest effects is towards the end: rather than having a two minute jam on the main melody (`DMV', `Jerry Was a Racecar Driver'), Claypool and LaLonde play the main riff together -- separated by a few steps -- which ends up becoming the final curveball which really lets you know it's Primus. This song follows the tradition of Jerry and Wynona as the "stand-out track" to most listeners, although serious fans may find something else on the album they like better. I personally would put this song about 5th or 6th in my favorite tracks from this album.
`Over the Falls' is the forth track, and reminds me of Southbound Pachyderm because it is a slow, melodic track that follows three hard, funky ones. I enjoyed `Over the Falls' much more though, as I thought its style was truly original. It's in 3/4, which Primus has done before (`Seas of Cheese', `Glass Sandwich'), but never in a really managed to put into a complete, enjoyable song. LaLonde carries most of the song on Acoustic guitar with a melodic, dreamy background reminiscent of `Running the Gauntlet' (the opening track to his solo CD), but Claypool throws in a burst of straight electric bass quarter notes that lets you know there was a reason this was recorded on all analog equipment rather that the standard digital.
`Shake Hands with Beef' is surprisingly the first single. I think they did this because although `Wynona's Big Brown Beaver' was a great song, it just gave them a gimmicky reputation from people who weren't previously familiar with them. This is probably the darkest song of the album, although it's in a macabre style so it's not a downer, and as the title suggests it's weird and funny. This song is much like `My Name is Mud', but this time LaLonde stays with Claypool the entire song with the exception of a blistering solo. They succeed in capturing the mood here: Les's bass is easily the fattest and heaviest it's ever been, and Brain's drumming is a steady beat with many nice fill-ins. This song gets a bit monotonous though - after the second verse it's basically made it's point - but is still able to avoid being at all boring. It's still a good Primus song, and LaLonde's solo while Claypool lays down chunky chord strums makes this song a keeper. It would have been a bit better if the solo were sooner or Ler did something different, but I think this song comes with a specific thing in mind and it accomplishes that.
`Camelback Cinema' is an unusually straightforward song for Primus. It begins with a hard solo/intro by Brain and then settles into a very hard, 1-2 punch beat. Claypool repeatedly sings "Camelback Cinema", which gets sort of annoying. Fortunately, the song is broken up nicely by changes in the bass line, and it goes from fast and picking to tough and grinding. It is once again a song about prostitution (`Calling Kyle', `Glass Sandwich') but is a bit more upbeat and playful, although the song itself is fast and direct, so it really doesn't work quite right. Although this is possibly the weakest song of the album, it is not terrible, as Primus has sometimes done. It also finishes with a lot of energy: "Go, Go, Go, Go!!!"
Although this album does not continue the "fishing" tradition, we get another Claypool autobiography (`de Anza Jig', `Holy Mackerel') in `Hats Off'. The tempo is reminiscent of George E. Porge, but this song is much more successful. On this song, Ler's playing is a nice, light melody, and Brain adds plenty of fills and thumps to make the drumming follow along nicely. One large difference between Claypool and most lyricists is the self- indulgence, and anyone who's read Claypool's history will definitely enjoy this song. Typically, thank you speeches are saved for Grammy night, and it's nice to have a singer compliment not only those who set an example by succeeding, but failing as well.
At this point in the album, `Puddin' Taine' is the last thing I expected. Although the last 3 songs easily avoid the fallout that Punchbowl experienced, I was getting worried at this point in time, the album would start to go into its weaker tracks. Boy, was I wrong! I can see this as a fan's hit (`Tweekers', `Welcome to this World'), because although it is an excellent song, it's not as accessible as `Golden Boy'. In fact, this song sounds like a much-improved version of a track from Frizzle Fry, Primus's first studio album which most serious fans consider their favorite. It starts as a really quick 1-2 beat with Claypool strumming alone on the offbeat, and just keeps building and building into a masterpiece. The best part is probably the solo: a mere two measures into it, it suddenly changes key and really draws your attention into what LaLonde is doing. Brain keeps a great steady beat, but what really ices this song is the sound: it's just pure energy, and Claypool's chorus of "Woo-Hoo!" lets you know it.
Like `Return of Sathington Willoby', `Bob's Party Time Lounge' is a sequel. This time, it explains the heavenly lounge inhabited by Bob, the character who hung himself in his own song from Pork Soda. This also is like the first track from this album, in that 5qit changes moods a lot. Probably the first thing to stand out on this track is Brain's drumming: it is excellent. The bass and guitar for the chorus are rather straightforward, which gives Brain his first real chance to show off. Right after you think the song is done, it goes in a full instrumental Jam session in which the two other members join Brain. I'm not sure if it equals the magic of `Hamburger Train' but it comes close.
`Duchess and the Proverbial Mind Spread' doesn't sound like a Primus song. Well, at least not a studio song. Primus is of course comfortable with Jazz and Blues judging from their "unplugged" version of `John the Fisherman' which appeared on the Cheesy Home Video. The main melody itself is extremely catchy, and anyone with a background in Jazz will enjoy Primus's version of it. Brain throws in a background solo towards the end, followed by a bluesy spaz-out by LaLonde before going back to the main riff. Although this is the type of song that gets in your head, it manages to not be too repetitive by using well-timed solos and mixes. Like many songs of the album, the sound of both the instruments and the vocal fit perfectly with the intended mood of the song.
`Restin Bones' is simply a dark song with little humor, but is still very cool. Brain really gives you a new appreciation for his gigantic bass drum, and although Les's bass part is simple, it jumps in and out and creates a very eerie feel. Ler's guitar is what really gives this song its mood though, and keeps this song interesting at over 5 minutes. The song is basically about an old hippie-type who drops out of society and "rests his bones" for Evlis and Johnny Cash.
`Coddingtown' is the most experimental song of the album, but not in the traditional Primus way. While Brain thumps through a blazing 1-2 beat with lots of fill-ins, Ler does a traditional speed-metal riff, possibly borrowing from his experience with Blind Illusion and Possessed. In the meantime, Les plays the upright. Yes, you heard me, the upright. Although of course using the upright is nothing new to Primus (`Mr. Krinkle', `Glass Sandwich', `Precipitation'), it's never been done at this speed for this type of mood. This song will startle even the most serious Primus fans, as the fast, monotonous singing certainly is a new one. The upright bass melody with a heavily warped sound is most memorable, as it slides and bends through fast, crisp instruments and singing.
`Kalamazoo' shows the side of Primus most people will be familiar with: catchy and fun. The difference is that this song is cool and groovy, which almost sounds like the antithesis of Frizzle Fry. Claypool's slappy, dancing bass is catchy enough, but once again LaLonde is the one that perfects this song. Brain thumps out an intro, then settles into a cool grove. That's the best word to describe this song - cool. Well, I should clarify I mean cool in the classic sense of the word: light, easygoing, and fun. Like `Puddin' Taine', they key changes just as the solo begins, making it really interesting. The lyrics are very clever - "ABCDEFGHI got a girl."
`Chastising of Renegade' is not an instrumental, but make no mistake: it is a jamming song. Brain begins with a great beat, joined by chord slapping by Les most resembling `Cohibas Esplenditos'. It changes pace when the lyrics start, though into a slower, more mysterious theme with Claypool doing a stuttering slap and LaLonde playing only on the offbeat. After returning to the opening tempo for the chorus, there is a buildup foreshadowing the jam. The jam is Primus's best since `Hamburger Train', and although it doesn't happen until over 4 minutes into the song and is too short, there is plenty of great variety in the main song to keep everyone interested. Actually, the Jam is simply a wonderful bonus, and serves as an example of how this album often goes beyond the call of duty, unlike even Primus's better previous releases.
The 15th and final track of this album is `Arnie', which shows an influence to Primus never seen before: Zeppelin. I would assume this is because of Brain, as the drums start with a "Dy'er Maker" roll and then settle into a heavy `When the Leavy Breaks' type beat. The bass is heavy but dreamy, the guitar vibrates chords in the background, creating a very distinct summer feeling. The lyrics are odd and distinctly Primus, as a man lights himself on fire while saying "Remember this Day". This phrase is a metaphor both for what this album achieves and the future of Primus.
The first question asked by non-fans will probably be, "is this really different from their other stuff?", and I would have to answer no. If you look at the criticisms of Primus, they are answered. Of course, the biggest criticism of Primus is that they get so caught up in exploring their own tastes, they sometimes leave songs that sound terrible to even serious fans (`Year of the Parrot', `The Old Diamondback Sturgeon'). But this album is different in that although the songs are creative and self-indulgent as ever, there are not any experiments gone awry or untouchable songs. Even the "weaker" songs on this album have at least a few redeaming qualities, raising the question of whether they are in fact "weak" songs at all. However, it's important to realize that this band is still at least 50% Les Claypool, and if you never liked his stuff before, you may as well stop trying. The only excuse for not liking Primus now is that you just don't understand them, because this is the best Primus album for non-fans. Even with a different drummer and a more stylish sound, these are still 3 guys who do not fit into mainstream music very easily. Primus is definitely one of those bands you either love or hate, and I can't see many people being swayed one way or the other.
For fans, this is an excellent album. When I first heard this album would have 15 tracks with no instrumentals or traditional "Little Ditties", I was highly skeptical it would contain songs of this high quality. It's hard to say if it's better than "Frizzle Fry" or "Seas of Cheese", because it is simply different. In my opinion, this is the greatest Primus album ever, but then again I didn't start listening to Primus since 1993. I would have to warn that I was lukewarm at first, but after a few good listens I was totally hooked. One could argue that musically, the ideas are running low, as many songs on this album borrow either from Claypool's solo album or certain 70s songs. Still, borrowing either from your own work or work of bands done 20 years ago certainly is nothing to fret about when you consider the way bands for the last several years have been shamelessly ripping off ideas, whether intentional or not.
Although this album has many excellent tracks, I'm not sure that any will be able to catapult the band the way `Jerry was a Race Car Driver' did over 5 years ago. However, I can safely say this album is much more interesting that Tales From the Punchbowl, so fans really have nothing to lose by buying it. There are no full instrumental jams (`Hamburger Train'), but the jams on `Bob's Party Time Lounge' and `Chastising of Renegade' will be enough to satisfy the instrumental jam freaks. Actually, there are no little instrumentals (`Pork Chop's little Ditty', `Space Farm', etc.) on this album, period. You really get a sense that possibly for the first time, the band was overflowing with material and got to pick what it wanted to put on, rather than taking a few solid ideas and then filling in the rest with quick thoughts. To me, the best feature about this album is that it is truly complete, and the arrangement of songs on the album couldn't be better (unlike Punchbowl). Every song has its own feel, and despite having 15 tracks with a common theme, the songs never overlap in what they are trying to say and do. So, if you don't like this album, you're not - and never will be - a Primus fan.
It's 10:30 on a Tuesday night here in Western Pennsylvania, yet it's still about 93 degrees. While the rest of the world is listening to the droppings of alterna-pop, I'm gonna sit on my porch, pour myself some iced tea, and enjoy the genius of this album as I listen to it again and again. This album could have made many mistakes and still been a success, but it didn't. If that's not a delicious summer treat, I don't know what is.