You have to have a very high level of musicianship to sound good when you are busy trying to sound like an amateur.
The guy behind Maher Shalal Hash Baz is a fellow named Tori Kudo, a legend in certain circles of shambolicism. In his native Japan, he releases three-disc sets in limited editions and devoted followers snap them up and then he disappears for years. There is a tiny yet freaky cult for him here in the States, too, apparently.
But it is very hard to pull off "shambolic" as a musical style. You have to have a very high level of musicianship to sound good when you are busy trying to sound like an amateur; you also need to have amazing melodies if you want to sound like "I just made this up" without making people run screaming to shut off their stereos.
When this style works, it works deadly good. A lot of Elephant 6 bands had it locked -- the first Circulatory System album is still one of the best things ever recorded in this country, and about half the output of Olivia Tremor Control fits that category too. (The other half, not so much.) But when it is bad, it is dull and dingy, and just plain boring.
That's where I'm at with this album. It was originally only available at gigs to superfans, who were already in the cult. To them, these intentionally tossed-off pieces must sound like manna from shaggy heaven. Many of the pieces manage to sound like a junior high school jazz band, except with occasional electric guitar and tuneless pop singing in Japanese. There is a certain wild appeal in all this -- can they pull it off? Occasionally, they do. The eight-minute "A Will" has a method to its madness and a real sense of drama, and things get crazy about halfway through the title song, with cop-show horns and twangy guitars playing free jazz over an actual hook.
But the rest is a mess. There is another long song here hiding behind a lot of tiny snippets (thirteen of the 22 tracks are less than a minute long) but it just doesn't add up; if you are going to do free jazz, it needs to be a lot better than this. Tunes like "Sea and Seagulls" ride one little riff harder than it needs to be ridden, and the fake-country "Honey" makes a mistake by bludgeoning every single beat with a farting euphonium.
In fact, it is only on the live track appendix that one can hear any appeal in this band outside its miniscule circle. These two tracks, recorded in Portland and Seattle, give off some sparks. But it's too little and too late for this reviewer, and for people who want their musicians to actually sound like musicians.