Few bad things can be said regarding vibraphonist Mike Dillon. Critters Buggin, Garage A Trois, Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade: if the names of these acts mean anything to you, you already are well aware that Dillon’s contributions to each comprise an integral component of their appeal. Anyone who has had the good fortune of watching him perform will attest to an irrepressible energy and ebullience that brighten any proceedings with which he is involved. He has, for most of the last decade, been a seminal character actor in the underground, determinedly independent music scene. The time, it seems, is right for his star turn as a leading man, and Battery Milk , the first release from Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle, should be cause for celebration.
It is not. So what went wrong? Well, things start off with a bang: “GoGo’s Theme” sets a tone of immediate, raucous bliss with rollicking percussion (courtesy of Dillon and drummer GoGo Ray), fat bass (the double assault of JJ “Jungle” Richards and Ron Johnson) and funky sax from Mark Southerland. This is thinking person’s party music; the unit is locked and loaded, bringing the Bonnaroo to your bedroom. It is, in short, a perfect song to open an album and is pretty much a perfect song, period. Expectations met, it’s go (go) time. The second track, “Broc’s Last Stand” continues in an infectiously upbeat style, with Dillon coming to the fore, displaying vibraphone work that has become less bombastic (not that there was anything wrong with that) and more melodious: his playing has transcended mere accompaniment and a unique and delightful virtuosity is on display. Congratulations are in order: Mike Dillon has arrived as an artist who can—and should—be front and center, leading his own band(s).
Track three is the turning point. It starts off with some delightful distortion and crisp sax lines from Southerland: We are in Critters Buggin territory, and that is a great place to be. Then, rather abruptly, a strange noise enters. The sound of a human voice. It sounds familiar, for a moment, and you might think: who let Mike Patton in the studio? Or, better yet, maybe Mike Dillon is being a team player and recognizing the (apparently) still unwritten rule that Patton’s increasingly predictable cartoon persona has to appear on at least 70 or so albums per year. Nope, it’s Dillon himself (or, if someone else can be blamed, the liner notes don’t reveal the culprit). The song concludes the way it starts: strong, and without the distracting spoken-word sinister/silly antics. Okay, maybe that was just an odd lapse, an unfortunate choice. But no, the hoarse whisperer is back on the next track, “Robbing the Bank”. Indeed, he shticks around for the next two tunes. If the music wasn’t so wonderful, perhaps the superfluous vocals would be a slightly quirky, even devious diversion. But as the subsequent songs steadily devolve from bad Mr. Bungle to watered down Don Van Vliet one can only ask: Why? Perhaps it is just this reviewer’s prejudice, but to be perfectly frank, if I want to listen to Captain Beefheart, I’ll go directly to the source and put on a Tom Waits record.
In fairness, after repeated listens the vocals are somewhat less grating, and it’s a certainty that these songs will be a lot of fun to listen to live, but the misplaced spirit of adventure mars what should have been a fantastic album. Astonishingly, the worst is yet to come, when disappointment turns to disdain. When the familiar opening notes of Aaron Neville’s “Hercules” begin, it is a threshold type of moment. What a wise, inspired choice, covering one of the all-time Crescent City soul workouts, particularly with the stench of Katrina still suffocating the air of that great city. But then the unthinkable occurs: someone starts singing (this time the culprit is JJ “Jungle” Richards), and the frail, forced vocals are, unfortunately, an embarrassment. It’s not merely a bad decision for a weak singer to try and imitate the mighty Aaron Neville, it borders on the disrespectful. A shame, since an instrumental take might have well been an understated way to capture the poignancy and profundity of the original masterpiece.
The remaining four numbers split the difference with two tasty (and vocal-free) jams and two more throwaways, both of which aim to make political statements. The first, “Stupid Americans”, is too stale and cliché-ridden to work, and the other, “Bad Man”, employs the no-longer original strategy of using George W. Bush’s own butchering of the English language via inserted samples to delineate what a dunce he is. For recent examples of confident and engaging political statements without words or gimmicks, one might check out Stanton Moore’s latest effort, or Bobby Previte’s instant-classic The Coalition of the Willing .
In conclusion, it must be acknowledged that there are not exactly a wealth of instantly recognizable vibraphonists on the scene right now, and it does not appear likely that this generation will produce the next Bobby Hutcherson. And that is okay. Hutcherson did enough work that enough of us still haven’t quite caught up yet, and he’ll span all subsequent generations that listen to music. And so, perhaps because it’s easy to do, enthusiastic promoters might claim that Dillon is carrying the torch. Actually, he is on his own path, and there is every reason to expect a further maturation of this cerebral sort of jam-band music. If we’re lucky, Dillon will restrain his impulse to imitate and have more surprises—the positive kind—as he continues to grow, and groove.