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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Butthole Surfers: Hairway To Steven

BUTTHOLE SURFERS: HAIRWAY TO STEVEN (1988)

1) Jimi; 2) Ricky; 3) I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas; 4) John E. Smoke; 5) Rocky; 6) Julio Iglesias; 7) Backass; 8) Fast.

A lot of people swear by this as the last great Butthole Surfers album, but... I'm not all that sure. I'm not even sure about the title, which is a kinky spoonerism worthy of a Mark Prindle review, but on the whole, seems just «silly» rather than «absurd» — and not even all that offensive, either, if you want to make a key point on the Butthole Surfers' importance as the ultimate Sacred Cow Irritant to be unleashed on a stuck-up world.

But outside of the title, the record seems like an attempt at relatively tame, even normal — for the Surfers, that is — psychedelic rock, with a heavy nod to their predecessors. It may well be so that, like many sensible people do, Gibby and Paul got tired of merely fooling around and decided to finally «make progress», «mature», or something like that (this rational assumption is almost de­stroyed to smithereens if you take the lyrics of ʽJulio Iglesiasʼ into consideration, but this screa­ming exception just proves the general rule). And this is not such a perfect idea, because the "songwriting" here is essentially centered around lengthy and/or repetitive grooves — almost  jam-like grooves, and as much as I respect Paul Leary as a guitarist, jamming is not what this band is truly about. Although, in a pinch, some Butthole Surfers jamming may be good (and, shh, don't tell anyone, but it is definitely more fun than the Grateful Dead anyway).

Unlike Hairway To Steven, ʽJimiʼ is a good title — this opening 12-minute epic is clearly dedi­cated to Hendrix, which is reflected both in Leary's guitar style and in the band's heavy playing around with speeding up and slowing down their vocals; together with all the astral noises and guitar meltdowns, this is highly reminiscent of the opening «alien sketch» on Axis: Bold As Love. But ʽEXPʼ was over in a couple minutes, whereas this one goes on long after it has re­vealed all its potential, and even if you built up a case that Paul Leary is a much better Hendrix interpreter than Stevie Ray Vaughan (totally possible, if you value the «psycho» aspects of Jimi's playing more than his «blues» aspects), this is cool, but not jaw-droppingly amazing/original guitar playing by the standards of 1988. The unexpected transition into acoustic folk-rock jam­ming with chirping birds and crying babies all around during the last five minutes is kinda cool, but also most definitely overlong. Take five minutes off the first part and three off the second, and you have something nice and adequate going there.

Once we get to the shorter songs, we experience the problem of what it is when the Surfers sound «normal». Found face to face with a psycho-folk backing (e. g. on ʽRickyʼ and ʽRockyʼ), Gibby Haines begins sounding suspiciously close to Marty Balin, whereas Leary, when he is not paying tribute to Hendrix, seems to be surreptitiously tearing pages out of the Syd Barrett riffbook (ʽRickyʼ, I believe, uses some chord progressions from ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ at least). That wouldn't be too bad if they used these influences to good effect — but much too often, it just sounds like humble tributes to their betters. I mean, it's probably good that the songs sound so timeless; remembering the sound fashions of 1988, it is nice not to see them reflected here in any way. But timelessness also comes at a price, and the price here is that this brand of groove-based, relatively humor-free psychedelia just does not seem to make a lot of self-autonomous sense.

The problem is, you either have great melodies or you have impressive atmosphere (if you're really lucky, you can have both), but these melodies aren't too great (at best, they're passable vari­ations on stuff we already know), and the atmosphere is confusing. ʽI Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gasʼ — is this supposed to be a parody, or is this the Butthole Surfers' twisted way of a lyrical and musical interpretation of what seems to be a routine visit to a local clinic? It's too twisted for the former, but too crude and offensive to be taken seriously. And if you pay no atten­tion to the lyrics (or even the vocals), it is just another syncopated rocker with a predictable acoustic rhythm pattern — although when Leary gets to the solo, he has a nice way of taking it high up into the stratosphere, I'll admit. But then, if we're heading into the stratosphere, we are no longer in the local clinic, so count me confused.

And, naturally, with tunes like ʽJulio Iglesiasʼ, where Gibby lambasts poor Julio ("Julio he had a mole / Went to the doctor with a fiery pole / Saw the nurse what did he see / Loved to watch his sister pee") to a frantic neo-rockabilly beat; or with tunes like ʽJohn E. Smokeʼ, a lengthy pseudo-live send-up of the country-western tell-tale subgenre, it is hard to take the album seriously. In the end, it's just a little frustrating: the record tries to be everything at once, and in doing so, fails rather than succeeds as a whole. Individually, there's plenty of good moments to be had — and the short coda ʽFastʼ, featuring the band packing a tight punch and Leary excelling both on rhythm and heavily processed lead guitar, might be one of their best songs ever. But as a cohesive (or even as an intentionally dis-cohesive) LP, Hairway To Steven is a first misstep that would ultimately lead to the band's losing it altogether.

2 comments:

  1. Guess it's time to tighten up the old comment settings.....
    anyhow, I do enjoy the immediate predecessor and the next 2 more than this meandering disc.

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    Replies
    1. I agree. I even like Weird Revolution more.

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