No, they can’t all be zingers, but to the untrained Primus ear, they can come damn close. The Bay Area trio, featuring Les Claypool, who leads with both vocals and rubbery bass, started up in 1986. Claypool, who lords over guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander, does not do songs in a conventional manner. And that was the key element in Primus’ charm (to its diehard fans) or useless noise (to its detractors). Though pulling a funk sound from slapping and popping his bass, Claypool’s songs had about as much funk as Slayer’s. LaLonde’s guitar lines would weave in and out between the quirky bass lines and intricate drumming, making for an uneasy listen.
But what made Primus so special was its ability to make fans listen, and to submerge a lot of melody in the noise. Listen to many of the songs on They Can’t All Be Zingers: they ARE melodic. The difference is that instead of having the melody in your face, the band has it slowly sneak up on you and wrap itself around your head until it squeezes itself into you, and you can’t shake it. And it’s no coincidence that three straight Primus albums went gold, including one which debuted in the Billboard Top 10 ... Pork Soda.
The group’s early stuff is its best stuff. It’s quirky, melodic, nonsensical (lyrically speaking), and just damn catchy. Claypool’s whiny vocals don’t stand out as much as they just add another sound to the mix. The opener, “To Defy the Laws of Tradition”, starts with the drum coda of Rush’s “YYZ”, before the turntable it’s playing on comes to a dead stop. Once the main part of the song starts, all you hear is what sounds like an off-key bass with a weird-ass guitar working in and out of the bass lines. Only Alexander’s drums sound normal. But as you listen, you start to get it—the melody, that is. It’s as though you’re letting yourself in on the secret to the song. (“To Defy ...” comes from Primus’ 1990 debut, Frizzle Fry, as does “John the Fisherman”, one of a very few songs with a somewhat easily readable structure and melody).
Arguably, the album that put Primus on the map is Sailing the Seas of Cheese, from which three cuts are represented here: “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver”, “Tommy the Cat” (with guest vocalist Tom Waits), and “Those Damn Blue Collar Tweakers”. The first two were guaranteed on any hits package, but you could have put any song from Seas as a third choice since it’s the band’s best album. Pork Soda is also represented by a trio of tunes; the quirky, yet popular “My Name is Mud”, “Mr. Krinkle” (the video for that song is not to be missed, since it’s a one-take shot of a bizarre circus with Claypool playing stand-up bass with a bow while wearing a pig mask), and the funny (and oh-so-true) “DMV”.
Pork Soda was Primus’ last overall good album, though its popularity led to the next release, Tales from the Punchbowl, going gold. Tales did spawn the biggest and most popular hit in the band’s cache: “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”. Claypool spelled the name Wynona on purpose, so Winona Ryder and Wynonna Judd wouldn’t complain. Ryder did pitch a bitch, though, after hearing the song. “Southbound Pachyderm”, a jam tune, is also represented here. Interesting that Primus is well loved in the jamband community now—my, how things have changed.
After Punchbowl, Alexander left the band, to be replaced by Bryan Mantia (better known as “Brain”). Alexander took much of the quirky charm of the band with him, and what was left were less-than-stellar releases The Brown Album, Antipop, and Rhinoplasty, which was at least an EP of somewhat entertaining cover tunes. Alexander came back for the EP Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, a four-song, hastily thrown together mish-mash. The last four songs here on Zingers are easily skipable.
Individually, the three separate parts of Primus (with Alexander) are talented on the instruments they play. Cohesively, they make odd sounds that add up for some, and are just noise to others. Primus is not an easy listen (“John the Fisherman” and “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” being the exceptions), but if you have an open mind to try, your best bet is to pick up both They Can’t All Be Zingers for the array of songs, and Sailing the Seas of Cheese, simply because it’s the band’s best overall album. Just prepare yourself for a musical onslaught of quirkiness, and don’t bother asking yourself why.