Of all the innovative artists tied to the downtown New York scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, August Darnell, aka Kid Creole of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, is one of the most overlooked and underrated. Songs such as “Endicott,” “Stool Pigeon,” and “I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby” portray both Darnell’s commercial sensibilities and his gift for applying edgy flourishes to disco, funk, calypso, and myriad other genres. His ties with “mutant disco” label ZE Records ply him with an enviable amount of cred, and the level of theatricality he and the Coconuts brought to the scene is as refreshing as it is enjoyable. Enlisting Hercules & Love Affair’s Andy Butler to co-compose and co-produce latest release I Wake Up Screaming reveals that, in a time when he could easily be resting on his laurels, Darnell would rather prove his integrity is still vital.
The album’s first two songs, “Stony and Cory” and “I Wake Up Screaming (In The Tropics)” are so strong that they threaten to be unmatched by anything that follows, although I Wake Up Screaming offers much to love straight to the very end. “Stony and Cory” chronicles the true love story between Cory Daye and (Darnell’s late brother) Stony Browder of Darnell’s first major musical foray, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. The song’s chorus is filled with “Oh my Gods” and coos of “what a crazy story” yet abstains from giving too much away apart from basic facts in the song’s verses. In this way, Darnell honors the creative intelligence of the listener; this is tact employed by far too few artists nowadays. It also shows that Darnell’s Masters degree in English was not pursued in vain. Despite packing plenty of the multi-cultural elements that became Darnell’s signature, the song contains a few stylistic nods to Dr. Buzzard’s, a band that gained recognition through the song “Sunshower” (sampled by M.I.A., among others). “I Wake Up Screaming” takes pieces of “Ticket To The Tropics,” a song originally recorded by Darnell’s distaff Coconuts themselves, and reworks them into a classic Kid Creole plaint for booty.
I Wake Up Screaming is at its most successful when going the lecherous and rousing route, although a few softer moments gleam as well. The strongest of these quieter showings is “Tudor-Jones,” a soul ballad dedicated to current head Coconut Eva Tudor-Jones. Kid Creole’s penchant for dipping in and out of genres is in fine form throughout the album, with funk, soul, an — of course — plenty of tropical flavors all making strong showings. Some rock guitar, in the aptly titled “We’re Rockin’ Out Tonight,” even makes an appearance. Butler’s presence is felt, albeit subtly. “I Do Believe” may be the most outright of his contributions, but it also contains lyrics like “You make my lips feel like a cornflake in a bowl,” a line that could only come from Darnell’s mind.
With Darnell now 60 and his Kid Creole persona still sexually-fixated, it could be easy (if perhaps a fair stretch) to dub I Wake Up Screaming as Grinderman goes tropical, to less violent results. Although it does seem like an increased libido is one way of dealing with aging in popular and not-so-popular musical genres alike, it also allows for easy writing off. I Wake Up Screaming more than proves that Darnell deserves better.