[12 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s incredible in this day an age to see a band that relies on the ridiculously simple formula of lumbering, fuzzed-out riffs, crashing ride cymbals, and a tone-deaf singer spouting lyrics that might seem witty to a baked skateboarder, stick around for so long, but Fu Manchu has done just that, putting out a whopping ten albums over the last dozen years. The Orange County foursome is formulaic and predictable to be sure, but for all the simplicity, and in a way because of it, it’s immensely satisfying music, reducing classic rock ‘n’ roll to its most stripped down and primal. While other American bands from the ‘90s such as the Melvins and Crowbar took (and continue to take) the stoner sound into the darker nether regions of Washington state and New Orleans respectively, Fu Manchu has always remained firmly ensconced in the California sun. Each album of theirs, while heavy enough to warrant the adjective “seismic”, has always been infused with a sly melodic element, be it a groovy riff or the Jeff Spicoli charisma of singer/guitarist Scott Hill, making each disc insidiously accessible. You won’t find too many ordinary folks interested in the dark, twisted tunage of the Melvins, but put on a killer Fu song, and watch ‘em dance.
Following the landmark 1996 album In Searh Of…, Fu Manchu started to refine its sound, culminating in the fantastic one-two punch of King of the Road (1999) and California Crossing (2002), which blended the tried-and-true stoner aesthetic with the odd adventurous moment and some insanely catchy hooks. While 2004’s Start the Machine was able to hold its own, it was a hint to listeners that perhaps the old customized, carpeted Econoline was starting to run on fumes, leading many to believe that its best days were quickly receding in the rearview mirror. Nearly three years later, however, the old girl has been given a swanky overhaul, and while this ride hasn’t exactly been, erm, pimped, that big V-8 is back to cruising at a comfy 60.
Hackneyed car metaphors aside, it’s great to hear Fu Manchu full of piss and vinegar once again, as We Must Obey is the band’s most focused, insistent effort in years. The second we hear the crazed intro to the album-opening title track (with simultaneous ascending/descending riffs courtesy Hill and Bob Balch), we know these dudes mean business this time around, the rhythm section of drummer Scott Reeder and Brad Davis laying down a tar-thick groove like fresh blacktop, which Hill and Balch take to it like a couple of ecstatic skaters. We haven’t heard this kind of fierce energy from the band since King of the Road, and it continues straight into the sauntering “Knew it All Along”, Reeder sounding ten times more powerful than he did on Start the Machine, finally proving himself to be a worthy successor to the great Brant Bjork, who left the band in 2002. “Let Me Out” hints at the darkness of the Melvins, but combined with the sunny psychedelia Fu Manchu has always excelled at, it transforms the song into a fascinatingly bipolar excursion into stoner extremes.
“Hung Out to Dry” comes aptly drenched in blues, the phase-shifted lead guitar fills adding some welcome flair to the proceedings, while “Shake it Loose” is full-throttle boogie, and although Hill doesn’t exactly specify what exactly it is we’re supposed to be shaking loose, it’s the kind of contagious song that will have people doing their damndest to do so. “Lesson” actually dares to try something a little different, as a slide guitar makes an appearance during the solo break, but the real surprise on We Must Obey is the daring cover of the Cars’ 1978 classic “Moving in Stereo”. The synths of the original have (not surprisingly) been replaced by distorted guitars, but the band channels the sultry feel of the song effortlessly, to the point where many male listeners will be having visions of that glorious Phoebe Cates scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High instantly.
Co-produced by Andrew Alekel, who obviously knows a thing or two about stoner jams having worked with Queens of the Stone Age, We Must Obey has the veteran band sounding absolutely rejuvenated, and save for the somewhat monotonous “Sensei vs. Sensei”, which gets just a bit too silly with its pothead noodling, moves along at a comfortable pace, making for an immensely satisfying half hour. Fu Manchu won’t ever change, and with such consistent results like this, we don’t ever want them to.