[16 September 2004]
John Wilkes Booze is what happens when some college kids from Bloomington, Indiana decide to seek out new revolutionary heroes and scribble righteous garage tunes about ‘em. Five Pillars of Soul is a condensed and resequenced compilation of five EPs from 2002, each one devoted to a different pillar of soul: Melvin van Peebles, Tania Hearst, Albert Ayler, Marc Bolan, and Yoko Ono. As you can see, their choices test the limits of the word “pillar”, and the garrulous CD booklet which accompanies these collected works is absolutely necessary for figuring out what the band’s going on about. In the end, you’ll dig it, and the booklet alone is worth the purchase.
At last headcount, John Wilkes Booze has six members, including an organist and two guitarists who also double on alto sax. The sound they make is striking: fast and furious swells of hooky noise interspersed with sound clips and melodic (and/or harmonic) tags from their inspirations. Singer Seth Mahern pins all this down with his odd quavering girly-boy voice (imagine a breathless Daniel Johnson peddling a bike uphill after taking two hits of trucker speed), and really, all the album’s content sorta gets channeled through that singular adenoidal voicebox. Not sure if Ahern also penned the tunes and typed up the booklet, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
The standout tracks are the ones which sound like a revolution, noisy bursts of pent-up enthusiasm drawing weird energy from the fugitives, screenplays, and mystics of the early seventies. “Sweetback’s Gonna Make It”, with its Stax-Volt bass riff and Ahern spurring his soul-pillar to keep that black hero running until the hyperspeed drum solo roars into view, is not only a concise summary of the interminable second half of Melvin van Peebles’ baadasss flick, but also a great new garage nugget to toss onto the heap. Even better is the chaotic “Spotlight” (“never wanted to be in the spotlight”), which begins with a fuzzy Sabbath-style riff (!), lurches quickly into squiggly noise and ranting, then descends into a coda during which the band seems to jam noisily for at least three straight minutes. Breathtaking.
Best of all is “White Guilt” (“I got it!”), a hilariously righteous gun-packin’ debutante-inhabitin’ call’n'response rocker which utterly dominates the tracklisting for two reasons: (1) there is more musky-scented soul packed into these 150 noisy seconds than I’ve heard anywhere so far this year, and (2) despite the name-dropping of H. Rap Brown and Albert Ayler, the song is really a loving tribute to the Symbionese Liberation Front, whose ideology was—according to John Wilkes Booze—the very essence of soul. Seriously, these boys from Bloomington have created something very strange, groovy, and new in “White Guilt”. Check it out!
The album ain’t perfect though. “Yoko Save Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a great-sounding tune, but c’mon! If Yoko really saved rock and roll then her muse John wouldn’t've put out such a piss-stream of shite solo albums after Imagine, am I right? Or maybe the song is referring specifically to Lennon’s covers album Rock and Roll, in which case I bet it’s still wrong.
Anyway, Five Pillars of Soul grinds to a halt at two key points: “Mark Bolan Makes Me Want to Fuck, Part II”, and “Academy Flight Song”. Both of these tunes are tributes to Marc Bolan, the most dubious of their soul-pillar selections, and they are equally daft and unlistenable (which is doubly frustrating since they have such cool titles). Basically, you get psychedelic noodling combined with some communal joke-vocals, which sound like grade-schoolers in Halloween ghost-costumes moaning about the cardboard gravestone and then cracking up. I should add that, although the liner notes make a good case for each of the other four pillars of soul, they lose the plot with Marc Bolan. Apparently he deserves to be a pillar of soul because he stayed in the Hotel Montana with a man who claimed to be a wizard, and then penned a lyric about “unicorns in virgin greens”. Something like that. Anyway, perhaps it’s all an elaborate in-joke, in which case those two songs still suck.
In the end, if you disconnect from the specific content and immerse yourself in the band’s noisy fetishizing of early-seventies revolutionaries, you end up with a primo groovy experience. Hell, if John Wilkes Booze manages to channel that enthusiasm for culture-jamming heroes, and focuses it on what’s going down in the world now, they could really be a threat, and a national treasure. Why stay underground, boys? Flash that piece!