Martin Gordon: The Baboon in the Basement

Matt Cibula

Martin Gordon

The Baboon in the Basement

Label: Radiant Future
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2003-06-30

This is the least pretentious album I've heard this year, so it has to be one of the best. Martin Gordon, who has been in and around the music business for more than 30 years (Sparks, John's Children, Jet, Radio Stars, Mira, session work with everyone from Blur to Boy George to Asha Bhosle to Kylie Minogue), has finally made his first solo album, and it's great and fun and stooooopid and intelligent and everything that makes music good.

But that's saying too much and raising your expectations. So I take it back. Let's start over. It's just hilariously rocking music with funny weird lyrics, it sounds great when you crank it up in the morning while making lunches for the kids, because they like it more than me even, and jump around madly and sing along with me. So it's like bubble-gum glam rock, or maybe internationally-infected new wave, or something. Damn. This is gonna be harder than I thought.

Basic information: This is a small-band affair. It's Gordon on the writing and the bass and keys and production work; Swedish singer Pelle Almgren; guitarist Andy Reimer (whose day-gig is with an Egyptian orchestra in Berlin), and drummer Chris Townson, who once subbed for the injured Keith Moon on an early '70s Who tour. How they get such a big huge sound out of these four people is beyond me, but so is a lot of other stuff, so I'm not letting it bother me. But you can really feel every crashing chord, every cymbal crash, every snarl from Almgren, so let's just say that Gordon is one of the ten greatest producers in the world and leave it at that.

My favorite thing about this record is the way all my favorite genres come together in a completely blatant way. Almgren has the ability to sound exactly like Cheap Trick's Robin Zander, so it would be stupid not to work that, and Gordon has no qualms about that. In "Hit Him on the Head With a Hammer", he builds the song around a tough Rick Nielson riff, some serious Bun E. Carlos drums, and lets Almgren sigh/sing lines like "His wife had left him / A long time agoooooooooo / 'Cause he carried on so-oo-oo-oo," and it just sounds all rather crunchy and perfect and lovely. The fact that the song goes on to describe how the wife beats her husband to death with a hammer, with a spanner, in a positive manner . . . well, that's all gravy on the cake. Or something.

We get a lot of weird treats here. The next tune, "Only One Dream Per Person", describes Gordon's adopted home of Germany and its structured society: "Take this queue for a better life / Step on up for a thinner wife / Your wish is of course our command / Just stand in line / This row is only for Aryans / This one is just vegetarians / Observe the customs / When doubtful just follow the sign." This might be all pants, but it's not, because it's done in a lovely 6/8 doo-wop waltz with a rollicking piano and some guitar/synth power chords straight out of Berlin (the group, not the city . . . but it IS out of the city, so I guess both) and some tasty jazz drumwork from Townson.

You might be getting the sense that Gordon has a weirdo sense of humor, but that would be understating the case. The man is freakin' bizarre. He's got a song here called "Terrible Mess (No-Good Shoebomber)", which is exactly the song T.Rex would have done about the dude who tried (and failed) to light his explosive footwear on the jet from Paris. This song typifies Gordon's skewed perspective on the world -- he's not especially angry at the hapless would-be terrorist, exactly, but instead finds him just incredibly stupid: "I got nothin' to lose, mama / Except for my shoes, mama / They saw through my ruse, mama / And now I can't find the fuse, mama." Gordon paints our protagonist as a misguided fool who can't even do the incredibly moronic and evil thing he was going to do, making him into more of an Everyman than we might be comfortable with . . . but he does so in such a great song (everyone chants the chorus together, just like on the early Peter Gabriel records, before Gabriel looked like my wife's Uncle Alan) that it doesn't matter.

Gordon wears his influences like badges or scars or novelty hats, which is always a good thing in a bandleader. He covers the Stones' "We Love You" and makes it sound like Primal Scream (he gigged with the 'Scream, too), T.Rex's "Warlord of the Royal Crocodiles" (Marc Bolan's first band? John's Children!), and the Move's "Tonight" (not sure of the connection here, but it's just dope as hell, with a Bo Diddley scronch on the chorus and some beautiful echo effects). He's not shy about using other people's ideas on his own songs, either: the chorus hook on "It's Like It's Like" is lifted from that '70s drug song that goes "That ain't no way to have fun," and just because I can't remember the title doesn't mean I'm lying. But that theft doesn't detract from "It's Like It's Like" at all, because no one's pretending to any great originality here: just a fun pop song about how his girlfriend can't stay on one conversational topic for more than 10 seconds.

But then there are things that no one has any idea where they're from. The title track is a big ol' surreal world-music jam session about, well, about a baboon being in one's basement, or perhaps on the stairs, or maybe right over there. If this was a different record, I might think that it's some metaphor for the hidden id, how we can't cover our animal instincts with the watered-down veneer of society forever. But it's not a different record, it's this one, and I'm convinced that they just thought "Hey what would sound good here in the middle of this tribal Bow Wow Wow / Adrian Belew workout? Oh yeah some chanted words about a damned baboon!" All I care about is that my kids think this is the funnest dance song ever. And they're never wrong.

(And yeah, this "girls are crazy" theme pops up on too many songs, which makes me wonder about Gordon's . And yeah, Gordon never met the easy chord progression he didn't love. And yeah, songs like "Greenfinger" and "She's So Pleasant Today" and "Good Girls Gone Bad" are completely disposable . . . but I'm thinking this is a good thing so ignore this one.) (All these things are true but who cares, it's fun, it's summer, turn it up, rock out, have a Coke with something in it or not, pull the stick out of your butt, "serious music" is overrated by a factor of 1.5 million.)

(Oh crap I forgot to talk about "Anyway Goodbye," the best kiss-off song in history where dude tells his ex to "Please don't take good care of yourself / Don't be concerned about the state of your health" and warns her against meditation and financial prudence. Oh well.)

Okay, look, it's like this: all that Important Stuff is good and all, but sometimes you need some junk food, and this is like junk food except it's probably twice as smart as any other record coming out this year, and just because something tastes good doesn't mean it's not good for you too, but this really isn't all that good for you, except for the part of you that needs to have fun. So listen to it and love it and smile and play some air guitar while you're at it. Because this really is one of the best albums of the year.


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