Any review of the Budokan Boys really requires a bit of backstory, because they can hardly be accused of being a traditionally formed band. That probably accounts for the deeply unusual style of their music. Jeff T. Byrd and Michael Jeffrey Lee formed a duo in New Orleans in 2012 for the specific purpose of playing one hastily arranged show. After a few more shows, they went their separate ways. A few years later, through a series of coincidences, they reunited in Austria and wrote a heap of songs, which became their debut album, That’s How You Become a Clown.
Soon afterward, they found themselves living in Byrd’s brother’s house in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It was there that their latest album, DAD IS BAD, was written, arranged and recorded. One could say that this stop-start musical coexistence, coupled with the haphazard globetrotting, helps to inform their eerie, cartoonish, wholly unique sound.
Whatever the case, and however they got to DAD IS BAD, there’s no denying that this is one strange album. It’s hard to find anything remotely comparable. I’m not sure what kind of musical diet Byrd and Lee were raised on, but I detect a whiff of no-wave synthpop with a healthy dose of absurdist R&B along the lines of Alabama 3 and Was (Not Was). In fact, if Budokan Boys decided to make a covers album consisting solely of the more unusual David Was-penned Was (Not Was) songs like “Dad, I’m in Jail”, “I Feel Better Than James Brown”, and “Earth to Doris”, they could probably pull it off magnificently.
With Byrd writing the music and playing the instruments (with a heavy emphasis on synths and drum machines) and Lee singing and writing the lion’s share of the lyrics, it’s a fairly cut-and-dried setup. But what comes out of this somewhat traditional collaborative makeup is truly startling. To be clear, it does take some time to find a footing in the unusual landscape of Budokan Boys – especially if you’re unfamiliar with their work – and an opening song like “Sick Pic” can be a tough pill to swallow. The unsettling quality of the song is underscored by Lee’s sped-up voice and the oddball, nursery-rhyme delivery. It’s as if Captain Beefheart came back from the dead to remake Trout Mask Replica for the 21st century, but with synthesizers instead of jagged, distorted guitars.
The title track sounds slightly more user-friendly, as a sort of robotic blues number (albeit a number about an unfit, mentally unstable father). The fear imposed by the song is more of a simmer than an explosion, resulting in a truly unnerving experience. On the single “God Today”, Byrd’s immensely creative, rich musical layers provide the perfect accompaniment to Lee’s twitchy, highly treated vocals. But the atonal, high-strung experimentalism is tempered by startling surprises like the soulful reggae ballad “No Show”, a deeply tuneful experiment that seems to gradually veer from romantic to possessive as the song progresses. Lee’s voice conveys the type of emotional expression that’s perfectly suited to the subject matter.
But “No Show” is a bit of an anomaly in that it may be the only song on the album that could have some roots in commercial pop. Everything else seems to draw from pop music’s stranger, darker corners. “Rent Me”, for instance, is odd in its simple, naïve execution, sounding almost like a 1980s synthpop superstar taking a stab at outsider music. With “The Hermit”, DAD IS BAD closes by way of a gentle ballad with Byrd’s electric guitar strums mixing with bird sounds, waves of synth blips, and Lee’s soulful falsetto. It sounds almost like a dream that feels foreign and uncomfortable, but for some reason, you don’t want to wake from it.
As on their debut album, Budokan Boys continue to steadfastly avoid tradition or easy categorization on DAD IS BAD. As they explore the darker, more mysterious corners of modern pop music, they keep producing more and more disarming and exciting results. Not bad for a couple of guys couch-surfing in New Mexico.