There are many fiendish crossroads we pass on our perilous journey from cradle to grave. Soul or gold. Death or glory. Love or lust. Health or hedonism. Beatles or Stones. Moore or Connery. To this illustrious list we can now add ‘Banjo or Freakout’. Yes, London-based Italian Alessio Natalizia offers us fresh dilemmas in the form of this debut long player. Which will you choose, the fragile teary melodies and buck-toothed simplicity of the mighty Mr. Banjo or the acid-fried, devil-horned allure of Sir Freakout himself? Ladies and gentlemen press your buzzers now…
It appears Mr. Natalizia shares your chin-stroking conundrum. Banjo or Freakout does indeed precariously ride that rickety ol’ fence that separates those great plains of timeless melody and gonzoid space rock… and yes, there will be splinters in painful places. In Camp ‘Banjo’, we have a high fivin’ fondness for ‘50s and ‘60s pop melody. “Move Out” could’ve shared a microphone with Elvis in Sun Studios in the summer of ‘56. It’s all lonesome croonin’, jagged echoes, and vinyl quiffs with a splash of swinging doo-wop drums. As with most of Banjo or Freakout, it’s bid adieu with some gorgeous synth waves as its tailights fade. “Idiot Rain” meanwhile serenades like Elliot Smith doing his party-piece Lennon impersonation. That same multi-tracked voice; warm, melodic, intimate sweeping across a divine, delicately spiralling guitar riff. It’s a ballroom waltz for the working class hero and shows Alessio has a canny ear for melody and potential future as a pop tart should he so desire.
There’s definitely more ‘Banjo’ than ‘Freakout’. “Go Ahead” is basically a stoner remake of Blur’s “Coffee & TV”. “Coffee & TV…& Bongwater & Flying Saucers” if you will. A nodding dog bassline and some “Woah dude” space guitar licks give it some neon. Yup, Banjo or Freakout is definitely best enjoyed at night or stoned, or both. The woozy “105” answers the door in sunglasses and a dressing gown and the mood of the day is ‘Hello Mellow’. Its cheery lullaby loops float like a happy ‘n’ hazy Dinosaur Jr. with Natalizia mumbling about “Seriously thinking of going to sleep”. I’m no detective, but this whole scene screams “Drinking in the daytime, phoning in sick tomorrow, permanent vacation”.
There are moments where both ‘Banjo’ and ‘Freakout’ collide, and frankly, make sweeeet love. The groove in the heart of “Can’t Be Mad for Nothing” feels like New Order walkin’ after midnight. A throbbing one-finger horror synth line which jogs into a full sprint before it vanishes into the abyss. A minute-too long perhaps, but a real trip nonetheless. “Dear Me” meanwhile stands resplendent in leather pants, casually bouncin’ a tambourine off its hip, workin’ up a hypnotic narcoleptic swagger worthy of the Dandy Warhols or the great Dionysian himself Jim Morrison. Add a lava lamp and a slideshow of melting flowers and it’s viva 1967, baby. Sadly, though, it doesn’t quite deliver the big bang climax. It fades too passively into dying embers, and you’re left anxiously hanging for the orgasmic firework apocalyspe that never comes. Its potential is tarnished by Natalizia’s penchant for messing about with ‘sound collages’ and pushing those darn “Space Noise #1 - 100” selections.
All this seat swapping doesn’t always make for a comfortable ride. Some of the worst offenders here feel like demos and, damn, they are tough to endure. The folky pagan shenanigans of “Fully Enjoy” are baffling. It’s the sort of trippy dribblings that Charles Manson probably still hears in his head and commands him to dance like a goon. Just say no kids. The grim “From Everyone Above” is what inspires people in asylums to decorate their cell walls with their own poo, whilst the droning “I Don’t Want to Start All Over Again” is basically someone finishing their album superfast because it’s, like, so waaaay past bedtime. Natalizia’s thin voice isn’t the greatest either, and whilst this isn’t always a deal breaker, grumbling confessionals like “My mother kept comin’ in and putting her nose in the air” do prompt you to start inventing convincing excuses to get you the hell outta Dodge, pronto Tonto.
So over to you, people of Earth. Banjo or Freakout await your vote. Natalizia clearly hears opposing voices in his head. Some of them guide him to pen classic pop. This is good. Bravo! Others tell him to throw the TV out of the window and go batshit nuts. This is also good—chaos can ignite a glorious molotov. But a good third of Banjo or Freakout is, in all honesty, doodling and fannying about. Call it tough love, but right now I’m calling cabs for both Mr Banjo and Sir Freakout. I want you to both go home and have a good, long, hard think about who, or what, you really want to be when you grow up.
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