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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Butthole Surfers: Rembrandt Pussyhorse

BUTTHOLE SURFERS: REMBRANDT PUSSYHORSE (1986)

1) Creep In The Cellar; 2) Sea Ferring; 3) American Woman; 4) Waiting For Jimmy To Kick; 5) Strangers Die Every­day; 6) Perry; 7) Whirling Hall Of Knives; 8) Mark Says Alright; 9) In The Cellar; 10) Moving To Florida*; 11) Comb*; 12) To Parter*; 13) Tornadoes*.

On here, the Surfers are attempting to get a little more serious, though you certainly would not know it from the album title — which not even the real Rembrandt would have appreciated, I think, no matter how iconoclastic a picture is being painted of him in various urban legends. But then I guess, if you put the word «Rembrandt» in your album title, there's no getting away from at least trying to do something important. Even if it is followed by the word «pussyhorse». Okay, not that important, perhaps.

Most of these tracks rise high above basic street hooliganry, though not always above the level of parody — some sound like an absurdist take on Joy Division (ʽWhirling Hall Of Knivesʼ) or Nick Cave (ʽSea Ferringʼ), and some are noisy, irreverent deconstructions of classics (the Guess Who's ʽAmerican Womanʼ). The true name of the game, though, is «experimentalism», and the band tries on everything that works and some things that don't, with spontaneity and unpredictability as their chief guides.

One of the legends states, for instance, that they were recording ʽCreep In The Cellarʼ on a used 16-track tape without having previously erased a country-western fiddle track from one of the channels — which played something completely different, but they liked it and left it in, so here we have ourselves some dark piano pop with a merry fiddle «underdub» playing something almost straight out of the Beatles' ʽDon't Pass Me Byʼ. Does it work? Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. More important is the fact that such was Fate's decree, and if you call yourselves The Butthole Surfers, you just don't muck around with Fate.

Everything here is weird, largely because the Surfers have finally gotten used to the possibilities of the recording studio, and are using the whole power of effects, overdubs, loops, and samples to their benefit, if that might indeed be the right word for it. Some basic knowledge of American pop culture, as usual, wouldn't hurt to appreciate the record deep enough, but is hardly necessary: perhaps knowing that ʽMark Says Alrightʼ utilizes the growl of a pitbull named Mark Farner, in «honor» of the leader of Grand Funk Railroad (a band that could hardly be further away from the Butthole Surfers' ideal than any other — but then, at least secretly, deep down inside everybody really loves GFR), makes the track a little more hilarious — but its real charm lies in how it com­bines elements of musical suspense with musical clowning, starting off with surf guitar trills and then melting them into a sea of chiming noises and wobbly interlocking soundwaves. What's Mark Farner got to do with that, anyway?

But essentially, this is a record about madness, not as heavy and frightening as, say, The Birth­day Party, yet every bit as deranged — already ʽCreep In The Cellarʼ begins with the line "there's a hole in his brain where his mind should have been", an appropriate tag for everything that goes on here. If there is a problem, it lies in the fact that almost as many albums had been recorded about madness by 1986 as there had been about breakups, and the Surfers aren't giving us any previous­ly uncovered angle, although it helps that they are not being too serious about it: for instance, a surreptitious slice of social criticism is heavily disguised in ʽPerryʼ, an adaptation of the Perry Mason theme for organ, schizophrenic guitar, and distorted, barely identifiable vocals. A zombie mutant Vegas anthem, words, music, and meaning all corroded.

I would not go as far as to fall in love with the record, though. Like many experimental «try anything for kicks» records, this one has some brilliant musical ideas (like the flanger effect on ʽWhirling Hall Of Knivesʼ, drilling a nice see-through hole in your skull in four and a half minutes), some odd stuff that overstays its welcome (did the electro-tribal drumming on ʽAmeri­can Womanʼ really have to occupy five and a half minutes of space?), and some completely pointless tracks — for instance, the "church organ" + "bubbles" + "distant vocal noise" combina­tion of ʽStrangers Die Everydayʼ simply does nothing other than undermining the solemnity of the church organ with the silliness of the bubbles. So what was that all about again?..

The CD issue of the album increases its length drastically by throwing on the EP Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis (from the previous year) as a bonus, adding three more tracks in the same (lack of) style and one, ʽMoving To Floridaʼ that would have been a better fit for Psychic..., what with its vocal lambasting of the redneck stereotype. However, I am not certain that forty nine minutes is a good span for an album like this — what with the songs tending to drag so much and the sonic weirdness of it all not always coinciding with sonic amazement, so to speak. Of course, in the overall context of 1986 («the worst year for music», as I like to call it, although mostly in reference to the major label commercial stuff), Pussyhorse is a marvel of human in­genuity. But in the overall context of human ingenuity as such, I would refrain from a thumbs up judgement: there is not much here that I openly enjoy, be it with a giggle or with a shiver, and too many tracks that are too boring to respect.

1 comment:

  1. "at least secretly, deep down inside everybody really loves GFR"
    Uh huh, now it comes out. Hater.
    "in the overall context of 1986 («the worst year for music», as I like to call it, although mostly in reference to the major label commercial stuff)"
    Uh huh. And this came out that year and STILL was better than 98.4% of the new stuff: http://www.discogs.com/Various-Electric-Seventies/release/3234685#images/5981130

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