Primus' first full album in 12 years makes it sound like the alternative rock of the mid-'90s is back in style.
It's not like Primus ever really went away. Their music can still be heard on television all the time, since they did the theme song to South Park. But Green Naugahyde is the band's first proper album since 1999. The '90s saw Primus go from unknown Bay Area underground band to alternative rock headliner to a burnt-out shell of itself. Their success was unlikely, but the alternative rock explosion of the 1990's helped. Back then, a band that played a bizarre combination of funk, metal, and avant-garde noise and had the bass as its lead instrument could not only find an audience, but it could also become a perennial resident of Billboard's charts. Still, Primus's sound changed drastically with the arrival of new drummer Brian "Brain" Mantia in 1997, and they were clearly running on fumes by 1999's Antipop, an attempt at a return-to-form album created with outside producers like Tom Morello and Fred Durst.
The band's front man, Les Claypool, spent the majority of the '00's working on various iterations of solo projects and all-star jam band one-offs like Oysterhead. But after a brief hiatus, Primus was back together in 2003 with drummer Tim Alexander. The reconstituted band did release an EP, but Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People was thoroughly mediocre. Still, the band toured here and there throughout the rest of the decade, often playing full-album shows of their early releases like Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Frizzle Fry. But there were no rumblings of new material; at least not until Alexander left the band again in 2010. This time the band replaced him with original Primus drummer Jay Lane (Lane was part of the band when they first started in the late '80s, but left before they recorded their first album).
Apparently Lane's arrival provided Claypool and guitarist Larry LaLonde with the inspiration to finally work on new material. The result sounds pretty much exactly like what you'd expect a Primus album to sound like. Lane's drumming is tight and snappy as opposed to Brain's more groove-based style, so Green Naugahyde fits in nicely next to Primus' albums like Tales From the Punchbowl and Pork Soda. In fact, "Eternal Consumption Engine" is a virtual remake of Punchbowl track "Space Farm". The original song was a brief, 105-second lark that featured bouncy bass, syncopated guitar, laser beam sounds, and pig noises. The new track has the same syncopated guitar and bouncy bass, but is now a fully fleshed-out song that ends with Claypool lamenting that "Everything's made in China!"
Green Naugahyde also has other Primus hallmarks. Yes, there's a song about fishing, a passion for Claypool and a band tradition. "The Last Salmon Man" is a hard-rocking track with a narrative, as Claypool tells the tale of a man who took over his ailing father's salmon fishing boat. Because of a promise to the father, the man continues to fish the coastal waters even though salmon have become scarce. At over six minutes, "The Last Salmon Man" is one of the album's most robust tracks, with room for an extended guitar solo and a spacey bass interlude. The song also comes back at the very end of the album for a brief, organ-based reprise, another Primus tradition that really serves little purpose here except that it's, you know, tradition.
Up until the midpoint of the album, Green Naugahyde is a perfectly serviceable Primus record. It relies a little too much on the band's past material for inspiration, but with Lane on the drums, the songs have a lot of drive to them and Claypool and LaLonde are clearly having fun. The band finally hits its stride with "Jilly's on Smack", the album's six-and-a-half minute centerpiece. After a spacey, reverb-heavy intro, the song bursts into a nimble, complex guitar riff from LaLonde, backed by distorted arco bass from Claypool and cymbal-heavy kit playing from Lane. Claypool practically whispers the lyrics "Jilly's on smack / And she won't be coming back / For the holidays". Lyrically, the song was clearly built around that rather simple couplet, but musically, the song is dark and genuinely ominous-sounding. The use of the upright bass and the bow pays off in spades for Claypool here, as it creates real atmosphere. And the mid-song switch to pizzicato bass and tom-heavy drumming is the perfect contrast to keep it from dragging through to the end. Even better, the band follows up this dark moment with its most playful. The bouncy, goofy "Lee Van Cleef" is just what it sounds like, an ode to the character actor from the '60 and '70s who co-starred with Clint Eastwood. Claypool admits that "There ain't never been none quite like Clint / There's really only one Clint / But I really did like Lee Van Cleef".
This 1-2 punch in the middle shows Primus at their best. Almost as good is the next track, the dark rocker "Moron TV", a screed against reality television that only suffers when Claypool whines the terrible pun "There's gonna be mooo-ron tv" over and over during the chorus. Still, listening to the new album, it becomes clear that the band really only seems to have four or five song templates in them. Most of these new songs are reminiscent of specific older Primus songs, although maybe not quite as pronounced as the aforementioned "Space Farm" / "Eternal Consumption Engine." Maybe it's not fair to expect truly fresh material on the band's comeback album after such a long time away from the recording studio. As a longtime fan, though, it would've been nice not to be able to say "this song sounds like a rearranged version of this other song" so often while listening to Green Naugahyde. But it is good to have Primus back and sounding energized. Jay Lane clearly understands how to complement Claypool's busy bass lines and LaLonde's unconventional guitar playing, and his drumming fits in really, really well with the group.