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Butthole Surfers

Weird Revolution

(Surfdog; US: 28 Aug 2001)

Gibby Haynes began the Butthole Surfers’ 1987 masterpiece Locust Abortion Technician with an exchange between father and son in which (before ending with a bombastic exhortation to Satan) he offered the advice, “it’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done”. I wonder if those words apply to this album.


The first sign that something’s wrong comes a full 10 seconds into the disc with the namedropping of psychedelic proselytizer turned new age nincompoop Timothy Leary. The association seems somehow fitting. The song then develops into an insipid rant about the “weird man” versus the “normal man”, which may have appealed to me when I first got up the courage to wear combat boots to high school. Maybe.


And then there’s the music. The Surfers have almost completely abandoned the standard guitar/bass/drums format in favor of what sounds like a band locked in a room with Cubase and (perhaps a dwindling supply of) mind-altering substances. The songs are built around canned drumbeats, not the most original choice of samples, and all manner of generally squelchy noises. Paul Leary’s patented Les Paul whine occasionally makes a welcome appearance and a faux funky bass line serves to remind us that someone still knows how to play. Gibby’s stream of consciousness lyrics, which once managed to seem revelatory, in this post-Beck milieu now seem simply lazy (“Gotta meet the plane so I can get my monkey / Teach him to be cool but a little bit funky”).


The Surfers have always been interested in pushing the boundaries of conventional rock music through musique concrète-inspired tape manipulation and incorporation of found sounds—from Locust Abortion Technician‘s “22 Going on 23” to the trip hoppy “Pepper” from 1996’s Electriclarryland. In fact the fluke success of the latter song can probably be held accountable for the direction of this album. The Surfers’ chief inspiration now seems to be an old copy of “Pump Up the Volume” left next to a Rod McKuen album long enough to drain it of its groove. “Shit Like That” even opens with a shameless sample of “When the Levee Breaks”. It’s a minor miracle that “Funky Drummer” didn’t make the cut. To give you an impression of the album’s general feel, throughout the entirety of the disc I am expecting to hear the words “remember, always use sunscreen”.


The moments of straight-faced rapping are undoubtedly the most painful. “The Shame of Life” (“There were girls in the front / and there were girls in the back / and there were girls petting squirrels / and there were squirrels smoking crack”) is particularly brutal while “Intelligent Guy” brings to mind the perhaps better left forgotten MC 900 Foot Jesus.


Leary manages to single-handedly save the album on a number of occasions. “Get Down” benefits from a reverb-laden guitar rhythm before morphing into an extended solo and “Dracula from Houston” sounds like three chords lifted from the Velvet Underground at their most upbeat, crossed with the Meat Puppets.


Easily the most striking aspect of the album (and the most disappointing) is its seemingly total lack of irony. Gone is the gleeful nihilism that we’ve all come to expect from the Surfers; instead it’s replaced by a straight-faced countenance that suggests that they are actually taking themselves seriously. The least I would expect is a knowing wink of self-parody (of course that’s how I always justified Gibby’s collaboration with Johnny Depp). Unless this is the latest and most convincing in a long line of pranks from the Surfers, I’m afraid they are about as serious as Bono at a benefit concert.


For all of its faults, however, the album does stumble onto a few songs that just simply work. “The Last Astronaut” combines Gibby’s radioed in account of returning to earth to find mass destruction (snippets such as “there’s a large fiery mass . . . I hope everything’s OK down there” are particularly prescient). His choppy monologue over a strikingly pretty piano and kinetic tape loops achieve a balance not found on the rest of the disc. And “Get Down” sounds like something you might throw on at a party and actually find people dancing to (undoubtedly a first for the Butthole Surfers). If the Surfers could somehow grow up enough to edit themselves while simultaneously tapping the destructive irreverence of their inner children, they might be on to something.

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16 Oct 2009
Words by Allison Taich, Pictures by Patrick Houdek
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