Saturday, May 24, 2008

Butthole Surfers - Electriclarryland

Butthole Surfers - Electriclarryland
by Ian Mathers



Maybe they just should have changed their name? The one common thread I've heard or read in fans' reactions to Electriclarryland is that they find it wanting compared to the Butthole Surfers' earlier, crazier material. Which is fair to an extent, I suppose; Electriclarryland is a rock album (albeit a weird one), as opposed to the band's roots in weird music (albeit with rock tinges). I didn't have the opportunity to check out the Buttholes' lengthy discography until years after my "Pepper"-loving teenage self bought Electriclarryland (and initially found it off-puttingly “difficult,”). I’m still not sure what I think of all that, but it's hard for me to fault this album for not being something it was never meant to be.

I mean, yes, if you were a diehard fan of the insanity that Gibby Haynes, Paul Leary, King Coffey and whoever else they could rope in produced on a regular basis, and you were expecting Electriclarryland to be more of the same, I could see it being a nasty shock in 1996. But get over it. Unless you're going to claim that bands just shouldn't change or try on a more conventional sound, it's kind of invalid to criticize this one from being different from the rest of the band's discography. I don’t expect diehards to like it, but isn't it more interesting to look at whether the album succeeds on the terms the band chose? Don’t fault the terms.

I don't care if Gibby and co. made this record because they bowed to pressure or not, actually; I like parts of the rest of the Buttholes' career (“Whirling Hall of Knives” and “Cherub” are the kind of menacing, fog-machined stomps I can really get behind), but too often their weirdness feels tossed off for the sake of being difficult or making inside jokes or general goofiness I can’t get behind. On Electriclarryland, Haynes still spouts nonsense, scatology and shaggy dog stories, he just does it over a relatively concise, heavy and tuneful set of songs. Real songs. With choruses.

And the thing about Haynes, guitarist Leary and drummer Coffey; during their years creating "Gibbytronix" vocal effects and spotwelding fantastically weird and often evil sounds together, they turned into pretty shit-hot musicians. Haynes in particular has a perfect rock singer voice in a way the first Butthole Surfers EP way back when would never lead you to believe was possible. Hearing him scream, bellow, howl, hiss, moan and rave about solving all of his problems with a gun or wanting to fuck his brother in the ass or how much he hates cough syrup (or hell, being in lust with Christina Applegate) is bracing, hilarious, creepy, fucking awesome. He's probably the only guy who could make me revel in lines like "Well, I met her on the street where she beat me like a poodle / Then she got me accepted to an Ivy League school." On that song, the indelible "The Lord is a Monkey," Haynes stream of consciousnesses some doggerel while occasionally the track erupts into greasy torrents of guitar on cue. The cue is the line “and a dope up her ass.” It's much closer to mid-period, ‘classic’ Buttholes than most partisans would be willing to admit, and like many others here, proves that Electriclarryland isn't a sellout really, just the band assfucking hard rock until it turns into something strange.

Electriclarryland is also impeccably sequenced, to both fuck with old fans and lure in new ones: “Pepper,” the heavy-Beck mutant that unexpectedly went to #1 on the Modern Rock charts on the strength of some drum machines underpinning Leary's guitar scree and Haynes ranting deadpan about drugs, mutilation and people being assholes (plus an all-time non-sequitur chorus) doesn't come until track three, cushioned two deep on either side with blistering, hooky sprints. In one corner, “Birds” sounds like a band finally updating the Stooges (keep in mind this was 1996, half a decade before Is This It would repopularize garage), and “Cough Syrup,” some deranged mix of roots- and indie-rock with a cello coda (I kind of want “they can have my legs/ just leave my mail alone” on my gravestone). And bookending, the kind of gutbucket stomp that only the ‘90s would imbue with echoed guitars (“Thermado”) and something that could probably pass for basic ‘90s alt-thrash if not for the fact that Gibby Haynes is growling in your ear “ever felt a gun for the trigger? / ever gone so fast you could die?" (“Ulcer Breakout”). So far, relatively conventional, and at least internally consistent; even the dancey, zen “Pepper” fits into the milieu.

Which is why the next song, “Jingle of a Dog's Collar,” is so hilarious. Gibby croons—croons!—“what do they know about love, my friend?” over a sunny jangle-pop arrangement, with random haunted organ interjections, sounding like he just popped a couple Valiums. The only time the mask slips a little is when he lets a little strain of urgency into the chorus: “the jingle of a dog's collar would be good right here/ the jingle of a dog's collar would be fine.” It's a bit like the old Surfers song that Orbital sampled on “Satan,” only the ‘50s domesticity never shatters, the other shoe never drops. The song even ends with the sound of a friendly dog. And it goes into the pedal-steeled, Eagles country of “TV Star,” which at least lets Haynes' libido back into the proceedings. But the whole thing is curiously placid.

Those two tracks, much hated even by people who seem to like the heavier parts of Electriclarryland, sound genius once you get used to having the rug pulled out from under you. It's interesting to find out that the Butthole Surfers could have been a catchier, cleverer Cake if they ever wanted, and while you never wish they'd taken that route, the way they dip into it here as a detour to the weird part of the album is masterfully done. When “My Brother's Wife”—a Gibbytronixed slab of zooming atmospherics, martial drumming and bad acid coveting scenarios—gurgles to life, the album drags hard to the left. As a teenager looking for more “Pepper” or at least “Birds,” it confused and unsettled me; now I can just enjoy it the same way I do “Whirling Hall of Knives,” only done on the fancier equipment those label bucks bought the band.

Perversely enough, they leave “Ah Ha” lodged between that slice of hell and “The Lord is a Monkey” (which could be an old track like “John E. Smoke” if not for the drum machine), as “Ah Ha” is both the most conventional thing the band has ever done and perversely, one of the best. Even the lyrics are relatively straightforward and normal. But it's… anthemic. Even as a kid who only knew the band by reputation, this seemed weird. I mean, it's no “Jimi,” but listen to “Ah Ha” in a speeding car on a highway in the middle of summer with the windows down. It's unexpectedly incredible. And while anthemicity is hardly a quality to expect from this band, that only makes it any less glorious.

After the hobo apocalypse of “The Lord is a Monkey” and the gentle comedown of "Let's Talk About Cars,” the band wraps up with “L.A.” and “Space.” The former is another surging, metallic rocker (the band is surprisingly adept with those here), but the latter starts out sounding a bit like Mogwai with Gibby laughing like he's on Dark Side of the Moon before gathering speed and really sounding like Mogwai. It's a fittingly off-kilter end to Electriclarryland. Given the band's oddball credentials, it's not surprising the album is one of the more confounding semi-breakthroughs by one of the most cult of cult bands. I guess it's technically a shame it got that way just by virtue of good songs in the traditional sense, in having their previously idiot-savant-like sense of songcraft meet their shit-disturbing tendencies halfway. But let’s take it on the band’s terms, not against them: if you're looking for nothing more than a catchy, funny, occasionally dirty album—and you can get past their name—the 90s offer few better candidates. Oh, and weird. You need to be looking for weird.

Ian Mathers has written for Stylus Magazine, Village Voice and the world's biggest Philip K. Dick fan site. He is currently finishing his Master's degree in Philosophy at the University of Guelph and wishes he had more time to write about music.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous DeathandMajesty said...

I liked your review.

Diehard butthole fans were only upset at Electriclarryland because it got popular.

END OF STORY.

The sheeply majority may have loved Pepper but that doesn't mean that they understood a single word. One of the most creative group of guys finally were paid for their musical efforts. They deserved it. Musicians and their music fluctuate. So why should their music always have to remain the same? This album was FAR from a sellout.

The music is elite and the lyrics are still written in Gibby Haynes' mysterious language.

October 16, 2008 at 7:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"or wanting to fuck his brother in the ass"

should be

"or fucking his brothers' wife"

If you listen to the song, it's about how he fucked his brothers' wife... in a car... and recollects her ass and breasts.

July 13, 2010 at 9:54 PM  

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