Ah, the concept album. The drool and cringe factors on this topic run to pretty severe extremes. Many love it -- bring on the operatic drama! Go out on a limb! Say something big and bold and spell it out in the sky! Then there are those who hate it, and when I say they hate it, I mean THEY HATE IT. Down with lofty pretension! Disembowel the overblown! Burn every copy of Pink Floyd's The Wall in existence!
Pacific Northwest artist Chris Slusarenko is definitely a trooper for camp A, but his adventurous production, Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, certainly doesn't grandstand in any yawn-inducing Tommy-esque fashion. Grave, self-important songs about the systematic destruction of individualism? No. Rantings from goddess Ann Magnuson on surgery gone wrong and things learned from the Discovery Channel about mamma bears? Yes. Fifteen bands and artists, each equipped with their own unique sound, contribute to the proceedings heard on Pumpernickel, making it the least-unified concept album ever -- perfectly suitable when chronicling the cryptic adventures and hallucinatory dreams of a military man whom probably exists only in a realm of fantasy. Don't bother trying to draw lofty conclusions about the content, don't bother trying to decipher the meaning of each tune-what's really meant to be examined here, according to Slusarenko, is simply "the "concept" of the "concept album". Even thinking about that for a second causes one's head to split open and shatter in a million loopy directions, which is what, thankfully, all of the songs on the album do.
Guided by Voices kick things off nicely in their new-school hi-fi fashion with "Titus and Strident Wet Nurse", with Stephen Malkmus close behind, offering up the most perverse and perplexing song of his career, "Blue Rash Intact". Pavement fans beware-the best-looking guy in indie rock gets in touch with his inner-synth pop femme-bot side on this number. It gets my vote for best song on Pumpernickel (a hard decision -- there ain't a bad track on this recording). This segues into the aforementioned Ms. Magnuson rocking hard, "Connie" style, on "Dr. Mom". Ann, please, another solo work, preferably one in the vein of your contribution to this album.
Quasi offers up the very sweet "Which Side Are You On, Colonel", which ends with one of those old pull-string Fisher-Price barnyard animal sound toys breathing its last breath. The newly solo Mary Timony comes up to bat next with the punchy and catchy "Doom in June . . . The Secret Order of the Caterpillar." You'll be repeating the little "Yeah, oh Yeah" chorus from this track FOREVER. Giant Sand's Howe Gelb works his creaky, southwestern-flavored magic with "Hooker Instead", a song whose abrupt burst of rambling piano adds a real chill to the so-far giddy proceedings.
The Minus 5 provide the best track for pot smoking, "The Great Divider". A reverberating cough opens the tune, which then slinks into this cool, shimmering groove that doesn't stop till the song does. The image of myself being in an open field twirling my arms around like a hippie grows more fully realized each time I hear this one. Sentridoh offers the most stripped-down track on the album, "Morning's After Me". I was bored by this at first, but Lou Barlow's plaintive singing can really get under your skin after a while. The sorely underappreciated Poster Children then whoosh in with "Back in Uniform", a propulsive diddy that rivals Timony's in the race for most energetic contribution.
Things begin to slow down a bit after this, but in no way do they become any less interesting. Modesto, California's Grandaddy, one of my top bands to watch for great things in the new decade, provide one of the album's most wistful moments with "LFO". Hearing singer Jason Lytle's fragile voice drift off to what sounds like the power grid of a nuclear plant being slowly shut down just kinda makes you sigh. The band's sound -- a melancholic mix of synthesizers and acoustic guitars, beautifully expresses an uneasy languidness that is decidedly 21st century, and any band that can simultaneously make one think of Radiohead, Neil Young, and ELO deserves attention. Black Heart Procession's ominous "One Hand Tore the Side" begins with the sound of a bubbling cauldron, and things only get creepier after that -- lead vocalist Pall A Jenkins sounds like he's singing while dying of stab wounds. Bedhead lovers Macha swirl around in neutral with "He Remembers His Burial at Sea", a jagged little number with lots of stops and starts that reveals a secret penchant for vocoders.
Weird War is the new group featuring members of Make-Up, and they kind of finish off the party with "I'll Never Forget What's His Name", which is the last original song with vocals on the album. It's freaky-deakey psychedelia that ends on a booming, far travelling note meant for making listeners wig out, which it most definitely will -- kudos to the band for making what could have been an indulgent moment so powerful and awesome. And how long has it been since we've seen a reprise on an album? It all comes back to GBV in the end. Well, not the very end. Goldcard's incidental scores are peppered throughout the album, and their pensive little noodlings are what bring Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel to its well-deserved, out-of-breath finale.
Every track on this rewarding album is rich with myriad imaginative possibilities -- you can't help but think (or guess) after a few listens what would have happened if each band and artist were allowed to take their song on for another couple of minutes, or in another direction. Unpredictability and evasion of musical categorization are so rare these days-hats off to everyone involved (especially suspected Dadaist Slusarenko) for delighting a jaded critic.