Chicagoan Bobby Conn likes to work in concepts, often several of them at once, which means you’ll find his spiel either audacious and hilarious or stilted and strained, depending on your taste for ambiguous irony and ribald theatrics. There’s a good chance that, like Welcome to My Nightmare-era Alice Cooper or anything by GWAR, this stuff only works live, where the members of the band, who dress like understudies for a Hedwig run, can breathe life into the music, which is far less flamboyant and imaginative than their look. On the basis of The Homeland, his second full-length album for Thrill Jockey, it’s hard to imagine making too big of a fuss over Conn, though at the same time it’s hard not to admire a performer so content to construct his own alternative cultural universe, entirely independent of the trends currently driving pop music, the Darkness not withstanding. For all their histrionics, the Darkness are basically an amped-up Urge Overkill — a vastly entertaining one, albeit — who fit comfortably into the current craze for dumb loud rock, re-glamorizing Queen the way Jet tries to re-glamorize AC/DC or Kings of Leon tries to re-glamorize Skynyrd. Conn is up to something different, something less calculated, but, sadly, less successful.
The music runs the gamut of appropriated ’70s styles, from early-decade prog pseudo-symphonies (“The Homeland”, replete with “Bohemian Rhapsody” harmonies) to mid-decade arena-sized bombast (the lumbering “My Special Friend”) to late decade disco-rock fusion (“Relax” and the reggae-fied “Cashing Objections”) to proto-’80s robot-alien funk (the Tubeway Army-style “We’re Taking over the World”). Though this amalgam may seem ambitious on paper (and the band certainly handles these disparate genres credibly), it doesn’t come across as ambition when you hear it. Instead, it plays like a lack of conviction for any one thing, a catch-all indecisiveness that tries to be too many things at once, or worse, like a series of in-jokes for a talented band far too pleased with themselves (think 10cc or the Tubes). Despite this smarminess, there are still plenty of killer hooks, and John McEntire’s expert recording job makes the most of them, giving the mix a crisp clarity that assures that these intricate arrangements never sound decadently bloated.
The rock-opera conceit comes across the same way. Rather than seeming truly inspired, The Homeland‘s satiric song cycle seems more like a hackneyed ruse to generate songs in the absence of anything deeply felt to sing about. A quick study of the album cover cartoon — a heinously lavender depiction of the band hanging in an landscape of endless golf courses in the shadow of an dollar-bill/Illuminati pyramid, their helicopter waiting on the green — makes Conn’s intent obvious, and the songs, in which Conn imagines in second-person proclamations the casual cynicism and violent self-righteousness that one would feel as a member the Republican Party, flesh out the picture further. But these portraits feel crude and oversimplified without serving a polemical function that might justify such a thing, and the connective interludes, when they’re not simply bloated instrumental segues, do nothing to make things more complex or compelling.
Conn almost sounds half-hearted about the whole thing, something I’m guessing he doesn’t seem onstage. The problem may lie in his voice itself, which lacks the flexibility to accomplish everything he tries to use it for. It sounds a bit unnatural as a Lou Reed monotone, as on the verses of “Home Sweet Home”, and a bit strained in vibrato-laced falsetto, as on the same song’s choruses. More importantly, it has none of the teasing, subversive sensuality necessary to make glam rock fly — the lascivious knowingness that transformed Marc Bolan’s gibberish into irresistibly salacious come-ons, that made Prince’s masturbatory rantings the stuff of genius. Conn and his Glass Gypsies sound less like either of them than he does another post-prog band from Chicago with a penchant for concept albums: Styx. In fact, the best analogue for The Homeland I can think of is Styx’s silly 1983 rock opera about totalitarian robots, Kilroy Was Here. Perhaps this is intentional, for no gesture could be more archly ironic or more retro campy than that.