It's possible that Huffin' Rag Blues represents one of the first times Steven Stapleton has taken the practice of toying with our expectations too far.
Nurse with Wound has now existed as an experimental music-making entity for 30 years. Steven Stapleton invented the moniker with then-bandmates John Fothergill and Herman Pathak, going on to use it as his own primary release vehicle, and maintaining it in some form or another for (if Wikipedia is to believed) upwards of 38 releases. When he began his musical adventure into the avant-garde, he was 21. Now, he's 51.
One would expect, then, that Stapleton's approach to music might have changed a bit in that time, and yet, all his fans have come to expect from him is that he confounds their expectations. No Nurse with Wound album is the same as the last, and while they all might share a bizarre, often opaque sense of composition and motivation, each has its own personality. Huffin' Rag Blues is no different, and yet it's possible that it represents one of the first times Stapleton has taken the practice of toying with our expectations too far.
One starts to find the aesthetic through a mere scan of the album art -- '60s-influenced technicolor frivolity atop a backdrop of stark wartime imagery -- yet it seems to be an approach better suited to visual expression than aural, if Huffin' Rag Blues is to be taken as evidence.
For one, many of the tracks are simply too straightforward. Now, maybe that doesn't seem like a fair criticism, given that it's an observation borne of expectation, but the lite jazz workouts that appear on this disc, while technically fine, just aren't interesting enough to sustain themselves. This being Nurse with Wound, the lite jazz never appears unfettered, but the digital skullduggery that Stapleton thrusts upon it isn't enough to make it interesting, either. "Groove Grease (Hot Catz)" rides a jazz bassline and organ flourishes into oblivion, only pausing for the occasional seductive sound sample or digital noise punctuation. "Thrill of Romance" is a decent listen, but it's simply a lounge tune with the lovely voice of Lynn Jackson providing plaintive vocals over the top, with a constant drone buzz maintaining an unwavering presence in the background. "Wash the Dust from My Heart" does the same thing as "Thrill of Romance", except without the drone -- just a brief, one-second record cut to a big band era something-or-other, and then back to business.
I mean, that just seems lazy and a bit unnecessary, really.
I've never been much for the whole "toss a bunch of sounds together and hope they work" method of composition, but this is actually where Huffin' Rag Blues truly shines. The strongest work to be found is that of "Cruisin' for a Bruisin'", surf rock with the sound of traffic mixed in with a little bit of off-handed road rage, and the thirteen-minute beast of a song "The Funktion of the Hairy Egg", which spends a lot of time being creepy and atmospheric before Ms. Jackson shows up for some more quiet singing. She is then overwhelmed by what sounds like the entirety of Noah's Ark. It's not storytelling, per se, and we may never know what it all means, but at least the track feels like it's building, it's going somewhere.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Nurse with Wound album without a healthy dose of what-the-bloody-hell, and Matt Waldron provides as much with his Nick Cave crossed with Tom Waits meets the beatnik movement stylings on "Black Teeth", a song as ugly as its title. And yet, it's intentionally so, which can only be a positive thing on a Nurse with Wound album, whether you find it listenable or not. If you like your what-the-bloody-hell a little bit more chaotic, there's always "Juice Head Crazy Lady", which is not quite controlled percussive chaos that culminates in hilarity.
Obviously, the album is not without its merits; "The Funktion of the Hairy Egg" stays fascinating for 14 straight minutes, and as Nurse with Wound albums go, it's one of the easier ones to get through. Once you pass the point of having released 35 albums, though, you have to start wondering what the point is of going through the motions of another bunch of experimental songs that have no ultimate purpose. Based on the cover art and the general mood of the album, I think Stapleton had a purpose of some sort in mind, juxtaposing the superficial artifice of life on a screen (or a stage) with the harsh reality that it belies. It's just not clear that that's what he accomplished on Huffin' Rag Blues, which mostly just sounds like a collection of Nurse with Wound tracks with some jazz thrown in. Stapleton, as he has proven so many times in the past, is capable of much, much more.