[5 July 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Les Claypool is not a bass player. Such a simplistic classification only undermines his brilliance at the otherwise standard metrical instrument. No, it is better to call him a rhythm stick surrealist, a man who uses the lower octaves of the scale to simulate all kinds of musical madness – funk, progressive, rock…even the ridiculous.
For over two decades, the now 44-year-old genius has delivered the commonplace clef, bringing it to the forefront as lead, accent and spoiler. Either through his fascinating work with prickly power trio Primus, or his solid solo career, this is a man whose made his multiple influences (Parliament, Rush and The Residents, to name a few) coalesce into a beautiful noise that literally knows no genre boundaries.
This is especially true of his recent CD release, Of Whales and Woes. Recorded with an idiosyncratic backup band featuring a strange array of artisans, Claypool applied his trademark psycho confessional lyrics to a sonic foundation of vibes, saxophone, and sitar. Like listening to an extraterrestrial species idea of what a disco version of “In the Court of the Crimson King” might sound like, Fancy is the perfect foil for their leader’s bong hit brainstorms. They fuse in a way that forgoes any aggravating notions of freeform and instead argues for something instinctual, almost primeval within their jam band gelling.
Touring throughout 2006 to support the album, Claypool contacted a small band of dedicated fans and had them record the shows for posterity. Using the latest in camcorder technology, and the live mixes from the sound board, the result is the DVD named for the band – and it is truly amazing.
First, let’s dispense with the almost unnecessary visual element. Because of its catch-as-catch-can nature, and inconsistency of media, the concert footage is strangely scattered. Some of it arrives in colorful full screen brilliance, while on occasion, a non-anamorphic letterboxed dynamic is in play. As this is a no frills affair – just Claypool and his partners in acoustic craziness (Gabby La La on sitar, ukulele and Theremin, Paulo Baldi on drums, the madman of the woodwinds Skerik, and the equally insane Mike Dillon on vibraphone, marimba and various percussive instruments) – there’s not a lot to look at. The intensity with which the group goes after their muse is fascinating, and for those interested in the performance aspect of pulling off this kind of collective cacophony, the sight is mesmerizing, but aside from some miscellaneous head gear (including Claypool’s trademark “Mr. Krinkle” pig mask), there’s little visual pizzazz.
Instead, the music is the main thing, and it represents the pinnacle of Claypool’s peculiar style. Again, most songs are anchored by his bass. It takes the primary position, provides percussive accents, and underscores the tone that the entire composition will take. With fingers flying across the frets, and individual notes strummed, plucked and seemingly pulled out of the air, he’s the engine that revs up his tuneful touring car. For the fuel, however, he needs his bandmates, and they deliver an incredibly high octane output.
Though her playing is frequently buried deep in the mix (or it could be the difficulty in electrifying the Indian instrument) Gabby’s sitar work is stunning. Precise, mischievous and never docile, she always finds a way to make the unique device fit the mix. Even better are her Theremin solos. She uses the sci-fi score staple with its cheesy electronic whine and turns it into a synthesized shriek on steroids.
It’s the same with the aptly named Skerik. With a name reminiscent of the noise his various saxophones make, he interjects a kind of animalistic squawk into the proceedings. Not only that, but he has a possessed presence that brings a real intensity to the group interaction. It’s an aggressiveness that’s complemented perfectly by Mike Dillon’s demonic mallet work on the marimba. One wouldn’t normally think of the jazz-oriented item as a rock and roll accompaniment, but when this outstanding musician attacks his keys, the result is something part eccentricity, part electricity. Add in ex-Cake drummer Baldi’s basic backbeat, used to position each exercise in the erratic into something resembling an auditory whole, and the result is nearly two hours of nimble nonsense.
Indeed, if there is one criticism foisted on Claypool, a complaint that has followed him throughout his years as a professional pop star, it’s the notion that the sonic boom constantly overrides actual song structure. He is definitely not a typical tunesmith, but those who can’t hear the archetypal verse/break/chorus are obviously listening with both ears closed. All throughout Fancy, we are faced with unusual performances breaking down basic sing-alongs. Sure, Claypool likes to mix things up, inserting some sea chantey into his basic blues stomp or overcomplicated construction (in the purest prog sense) to encase his quasi-nu-metal bop. At least he warns his potential fans of the weirdness about to commence. After all, who can approach titles like “The Big Eyeball in the Sky” or “Long in the Tooth” and not except something ‘different’.
Of the 15 performances present, there are several that stand out. “Rumble of the Diesel” delivers on its title, presenting the tale of a lonely fisherman whose only companion is the smell of his oil-spewing engine, while “Filipino Ray” is another certified Claypool character study. It really is a shame that his voice is often awash in the swirling sonic soup being brewed. Claypool is a brilliant lyricist, as anyone whose familiar with the title track to “Of Whales and Woe” (a dour description of the ravages of age) or “Vernon the Company Man” (with its sinister suggestiveness) knows. With such a limited approach to melody – most songs simply find the words folding effortlessly around the knotty aural ambience – some have dismissed the man as solely focused on intricate instrumentation. But the material here is indeed catchy, and quite memorable once the showcase has ended.
Claypool also needs to be commended for coming up with the fan filmmaker ideal. Most concert DVDs owe a diseased debt to MTV and their entire quick-cutting, obtuse angle approach to music presentation. Here, the filmmakers avoid video gimmicks and actually let the playing frame the shots. This is especially true of the close-ups. It’s one thing to see how someone like Gabby or Skerik creates their sounds. It’s another to see the look of unbridled bliss or deep concentration as they are making it happen. It’s something many live presentations miss, and it’s an element that makes Fancy all that more compelling.
There will always be fans who just can’t accept the fact that Les Claypool has placed Primus on the back burner to explore more diverse alt-rock landscapes. Between his solo work and his efforts with side bands like Sausage, Oysterhead, and The Frog Brigade, he seems to be moving further away from the facets that first formed his fame. But with a sublime skill that literally warrants awe, and a knowledge of how to get the best out of a like-minded group of musicians, Claypool never fails to fulfill his aural promise. Fancy is just another feather in an already overflowing cap of creative credentials. Call it a sonic souvenir or a demographically defined document, but it sure sounds good – and that’s all that matters.