Tuesday, September 13, 2011

PRIMUS: Green Naugahyde


There’s a sick and twisted joy that comes in reviewing any Primus album, either in print or on bar-stool, which is rooted in the sub-classificatory nodules of the pre-frontal cortex. Depending on your familiarity level with the band, you may or may not know that every Primus album has a--never strict, but always recurring--sub-genre. These sub-genres are often masked by the intensity of the band’s sinister-silly personality. But the unique sub-personalities of each effort are not unlike strata in the seven-layer burrito on which Winona’s Big Brown Beaver enjoys feasting.

Green Naugahyde is their eighth album (if, like me, you count 2003’s dense half hour of Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People EP as being substantial enough to warrant "album" status... but we’ll downgrade 1989’s live Suck On This to a "compilation", for dissection convenience). And if all seven of their previous studio works represent a layer in Winona’s castor Taco-Bell repast, then it’s appropriate to say that Green Naugahyde takes a big bite out of all of 'em. Real quickly, let’s summarize the previous layers, so that we might glean a better understanding of where the material on Green Naugahyde is coming from:

Frizzle Fry: It truly gave them their “Funk-Metal” distinction for which they would go on to be remembered as, even when the metal aspect eased down a bit.

Sailing the Seas of Cheese: This was their “Classic Rock” album, if it can be even joked that Claypool and the boys ever dipped their toes into classic rock structure. It contains, arguably, their most memorable songs.

Pork Soda: It was Primus’ “Primus” album. The most true to their inner and outer personalities, Pork Soda is their id, their quintessence. It may sound like a cop-out to assign an eponymous sub-genre, but imagine another dimension where Primus is as influential as the Beatles... Pork Soda would be their pop masterpiece.

Tales from the Punchbowl: It’s their art-groove, “Jam Band” album. And, as is common with the best jam-bands, the hits are grand-slams and the misses are Darfur.

The Brown Album: Their “Prison Yard Bluegrass” disk; up-tempo story-songs sounding like they were written next to a barrel-fire and recorded under an over-pass. It represents the more playful side of Primus.

Antipop: Aggressive, vocally choral pop-Metal. (Arguably their least listenable disk, despite finishing strong with two of their very finest tracks).

Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: Their “Space-Prog” exploration. [For the record, the material on Act Like People is one of the main reasons I presume that Les Claypool could have been one of the founding members of The Residents. He would have been 11 years old at the time of their first album, but that doesn’t sound entirely impossible, correct?]

Okay so all these prior works are the minerals in Green Naugahyde’s multi-vitamin. Let’s go through song by song to see how big a dose everything gets.

1) "Prelude to a Crawl" (1:19)

It might have been Les Claypool himself who eventually taught critics that indulgence is not a four letter word. Atmosphere-setting interludes are part of the Primus experiences, and what good would the cultural landscape be if our prodigious musicians didn’t spend at least a certain amount of time simply time dicking around. This moody minute definitely serves a purpose--even if it’s only for Claypool to share his bass tune-up because he sees himself as a one-man orchestra.

2) "Hennepin Crawler" (3:59)

An ode to a giant metal (presumably cumbersome) pedal-powered car (developed by California arts collective Krank Boom Clank), which up until recently the boys were seen riding in a goofy photo on the home page of Primusville.com. "Hennepin Crawler" already sounds like a more successful version of everything they tried for on Antipop. It’s up-beat, agressive and oddly catchy despite its darkly psyche-ska feel.

[Psyche-ska is a phrase you’ll hear a lot in this review, or “Pskachedelic”, if you will. You may also read about Ska-Opera, or “Skopera”. And no, you can’t have a refund on the Internet.]

Hennepin Crawler’s 7-Layer Ratings: (out of 7 $)
Frizzle Fry: $$ (More for drumming than anything else)
Sailing the Seas: $ (Not a heavy influence, and too many guitar and bass effects here)
Pork Soda $$ (For some modestly a-melodic bass fills)
Tales from the Punchbowl: $
Brown Album: $$$$ (It’s the right tempo, and has some staccato “GO!”’s for added rhythm)
Antipop: $$$$
Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: $

3) "Last Salmon Man" (6:15)

Last Salmon Man bridges the gap back to Sailing the Seas classic-rock era for two important reasons. One, it features a very analog, straight forward lead bass riff sans the flanger or any other of the many effects processing you’ll hear on bass throughout the GN. Secondly: It’s about fishing. It’s been a little while since Primus’ last fishing song. If I’m not mistaken, the most recent one dates back to Pork Soda's “The Ol' Diamondback Sturgeon (Fisherman's Chronicles, Part 3)". It’s possible that I’m missing some subtext on other songs in between--to be fair, I don’t remember what “Dirty Drowning Man” was about, but its vaguely nautical title warrents a look-up to sift for fishing references.

And boy is “Last Salmon Man” a straight up anthem about fishing. In a disc that’s relatively full of social commentary (probably more so than any Primus album yet), this song is literally about how a fisherman’s dad is worried his son will "be the last salmon man of the MacDonagal clan”.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Claypoool as a songwriter, it’s that he‘s just as good (or better) at writing songs about a slow day dragging in the nets as he is at writing about misappropriated funding for the large hadron collider (which is what I assume all of Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People was about).

My favorite thing about “Last Salmon Man” is Larry’s guitar work. I’ve always said about Primus, “I came for Les, but I stayed for Larry and Tim” (a thesis in itself which will receive due attention in another, much longer treatise). The most epic Primus songs must be hell on Ler because he doesn’t really riff on them; he has to maintain tasteful, song-long solos. And he plays imaginatively and tightly throughout "LSM", including one of his better short shred solos to date.

Frizzle Fry: $ (It’ll be an anthem for deranged fishermen everywhere)
Sailing the Seas: $$$$$$$ (It’s basically a nautical, more epic “Here Come The Bastards”)
Pork Soda: $$ (The mood is there, but not much else)
Tales from the Punchbowl: $
The Brown Album: $
Antipop: $
Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People: $

4) "Eternal Consumption Engine" (2:44)

This two and a half minute jig is the greatest “psychedelic polka”—to use Claypool’s self-descriptor—in the entire Primus catalog. Jay Lane hits an impressive array of bells, whistles and wood-block fills in this commentary about consumer culture. A could-be musical accompaniment to Annie Leonard’s The Story Of Stuff, "Eternal Consumption Engine" is like a weird music-baby between “Space Farm”, the “South Park” theme and the intro from “Toys Go Winding Down”.

Frizzle Fry: $$
Sailing the Seas: $
Pork Soda: $$$$$
Tales from the Punchbowl: $$$
Brown Album: $
Antipop: $
Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: $$ (There’s an effective toggle between near-whisper and near-scream)

5) "Tragedy’s A Comin" (4:52)

This will be our last (and most direct) stop in Antipop land for a while. This hunk of funky ska-metal could be the sequel to “Ballad of Bodacious”. Claypool sometimes works against himself with such a heavy flange effect on his bass, but I understand how sometimes you need your bass to sound like a guitar when you’re playing heavy riffs. Here, he goes back and forth from the clean funky pops during the main theme and bridge, to a flange-drench for the verse and chorus. This song doesn’t seem to be about tragedy in the big picture sense, so much as some low-life named Tragedy who is indeed on his way over.

Frizzle Fry: $
Sailing the Seas of Cheese: $
Pork Soda: $
Tales from the Punchbowl: $
Brown Album: $
Antipop: $$$$
Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: $

6) "Eyes of the Squirrel" (5:32)

For my money, this is what Primus does best. Down-tempo, ominous, psychedelic. Love the Flaming Lips as I do, there’s something amazing about rock music that’s simultaneously psychedelic AND threatening. “Eyes of the Squirrel” features octave bass slaps over Jay Lane kick-quadruplets, punctuated by fuzzed out Les fills and a single snare-hit. Repeat. Ler does what he does best, laying atmosphere over top of everything, and a slow, distrubing solo.

This is already one of my favorite Primus songs. It’s a direct descendent of “My Name Is Mud” and I personally enjoy it better. Lyrically, it’s a satirical roll-call of modern entertainment saturation, rattled off in between the every fourth measure mantra: “The Eyes of the Squirrel are Watching”. A tribute to that video of the dramatic squirrel, it mentions reality TV, Octomom, Brangelina, etc. It could be an Electric Six song lyrically, but it could only be a Primus song vocally (and, obviously, musically).

Frizzle Fry: $$$ (It’s a distant, less metal cousin of “Too Many Puppies” and “Toys Go Winding Down”)
Sailing the Seas of Cheese: $$$$$ (It’s the most memorable, hooky song on the disc)
Pork Soda: $$$$$$
Tales From the Punch Bowl: $$$ (In the extended outro, Les shreds on the bass with heavy delay as the pan goes from left to right... ends up sounding a bit like Floyd’s “On The Run”)
Brown Album: $$ (Vocally playful)
Antipop: $
Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People: $$$$ (Plenty spacey and, at the end, proggy)

7) "Jilly’s On Smack" (6:37)

Definitely the most Animals Like People of the bunch, "Jilly's On Smack" is the space-psych summit of the album. After a one-minute intro of chunky looped bass signals, a dissonant mid-register guitar arpeggio with delay frames the four chord bow-struck bass. The six and half minute rocker has a psychedelic breakdown in the middle, and then goes back into the main theme.

“Jilly’s On Smack... and she won’t be coming back. No, she won’t be coming back... FOR THE HOLIDAYS!” This tune actually sounds like a more rockin “Mary the Ice Cube”, and we’re treated to more of that whisper to scream drama. And I got to say, the “...for the holidays!” line is going to rank up there with “Too Many Puppies!”, “Here they come!”, and “Shake Hands with Beef!” for things the fans are going to want to scream along at concerts. Claypool chooses the oddest things for hooks, but hooks they are nonetheless.

Frizzle Fry: $$$ (The drumming and the mid-song breakdown are the strongest links)
Sailing the Seas of Cheese: $$$$ (Despite it’s progadelia, it’s successfully catchy)
Pork Soda: $$$
Tales From The Punchbowl: $$$$$
Brown Album: $
Antipop: $$ (It trumps “Eclectic Electric” for sure)
Animals Should Not: $$$$$$$

8) "Lee Van Cleef" (3:28)

A visit to Brown land for sure, this ditty about how “we always got a kick out of Lee” has the bouncing playfulness of half the songs on Brown Album. Also, maybe it’s my imagination, but even the drums sound like they hauled in whatever trash-can lids Brain was banging on during those Brown sessions for Jay to pound on.

Frizzle Fry: $$
Sailing The Seas of Cheese: $
Pork Soda: $
Tales From The Punchbowl: $
Brown Album: $$$$$$$
Antipop: $$$
Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: $

9) "Moron TV" (4:37)

This song is really worth getting excited about. It contains probably the grooviest riff on the album, which would qualify it for their grooviest song since “Over The Falls”--but it has a much harder edge. Maintaining their aggressive, semi-threatening atmosphere, “Moron TV” picks up where “Eyes of The Squirrel’s” social commentary left off. It has a significant touch of ska--not in that loveably cheesy “Duchess and the Proverbial Mindspread” sense, but more in that “what you expected Oysterhead to sound like” sense. This may be the top track on the album, depending on which tempo of Primus you subscribe to. In a vacuum, it probably trumps “Eyes of the Squirrel” because its ska-core breakdown is way more keenly composed (as well as musically apropos) than Squirrel’s prog-core outro movement.

One other thing to mention that "Moron TV" represents about Green Naugahyde on the whole: we’re getting much more baritone from Les on vocals. This is not to say that his effective whine-scream is left in the lurch. Rather, Les’ staple redneck alto is just more tastefully utilized, as just a part of his much more dynamic approach on vox.

Frizzle Fry: $$$$$
Sailing the Seas of Cheese: $$$$$
Pork Soda: $$$ (the music here is less structurally disconcerting)
Tales from the Punchbowl: $$
The Brown Album: $$$$$$
Antipop: $$$$ (vocally agressive, heavy production)
Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: $

10) "Green Ranger" (2:02)

If it can be said that there’s filler on Green Naugahyde, this would be it. Heavy bow-on-upright-bass with an uncharacteristically boring high-register guitar drizzle. The drumming is impressive, but it’s wasted on this song about riding with the Green Ranger. Luckily, it’s short enough that its lack of memorability helps it rather than hurts it.

Frizzle Fry: $$
Sailing the Seas of Cheese: $$
Pork Soda: $$$
Tales from the Punchbowl: $$$$ (like half the material on Punchbowl, the drumming completely outshines the other elements)
Brown Album: $$
Antipop: $$
Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: $

11) "Hoinfodaman" (2:58)

And… we’re back! This is definitely the most “bad-ass” track on Green Naugahyde. It opens with one of Ler’s most aggressive, fuzzed out riffs in over fifteen years, and is quickly joined in by a middle-finger of a bass riff. Early Primus fans will be glad for this face-puncher. “I used to be a pimp but now I’m ho-in’ for the man!” sings Claypool about commercial sell-outs. It’s a relatively simple song, with an absurdist, opera-style bridge. This would be a great one to see them draw out a bit longer live.


Frizzle Fry: $$$$$$
Sailing the Seas of Cheese: $$$$$$
Pork Soda: $$$
Tales From The Punchbowl: $$
The Brown Album: $$$$
Antipop: $$$$
Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: $

12) "Extinction Burst" (5:20)

What a climax! Extinction Burst is “Bob’s Party Time Lounge” on steroids, and it has roots in every single album, which is impressive because all the movements flow with solidarity in the time span of 5:20 (which is relatively short for one of the “epic” tracks). It’s so frenetic that I’m pretty sure you could connect your iPod to a car battery and play it to jump-start your ride.

Frizzle Fry: $$$$
Sailing the Seas of Cheese: $$$$
Pork Soda: $$$$
Tales From The Punchbowl: $$
Brown Album: $$$$
Antipop: $$$
Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: $$$$

13) "Salmon Men" (:58)

A wind-down reprisal from Last Salmon Man, in the style of Los Bastardos, but toned down a tad and significantly shorter than it’s respective dad track.

~~~~~

In summary, Green Naugahyde is perhaps the first Primus album to avoid settling into a sub-genre, but rather taking from all the styles in Primus’ back catalog. (Although, if you’re on a bar-stool, you have my blessing to refer to it as their "Ska-Funk" album ;-). There are both upsides and downsides to this paradigm. Treating their previous body of work as a buffet line lets them pick and choose the most successful elements of their music to focus on, resulting in a significantly more solid album than many of their efforts; it’s less hit or miss than Punchbowl, it’s more accessible and direct than Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, it’s more lively and entertaining than Pork Soda, and—again--it’s just plain better than Antipop. Realistically, it’s probably the third most thoroughly listenable Primus album after Seas of Cheese and Brown Album.

However, the flip-side to this buffet approach is that it’s their first disc in a long while which doesn’t have one or two of those unreasonably epic tracks which simply annihilates your entire notion of what music can be. There’s no “My Friend Fats”, no “Final Voyage of The Liquid Sky”. There’s no “Return of Sathington Willoughby", “Southbound Pachyderm”, or “Fish On”. And frankly, I’m fine with that. I’m ready for a thoroughly enjoyable Primus album. They can go back to re-inventing the wheel next time.

By the way, the transition to Jay Lane on drums is almost seamless. There’s a feel of that early Frizzle Fry funk-metal in the drumming, but Les and Ler have moved on to more advanced things. I could use slightly less effects on Les’ bass playing. But on the other hand, this is art, not entertainment. So if Les thinks it’s important for some of his bass-fills to sound like the buzzing mosquitos of vampiric corporate culture, then who am I to argue.

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