Primus: Green Naugahyde
There’s a sick and twisted joy that comes in reviewing any Primus album, either in print or on bar-stool, which is rooted in the sub-classificatory nodules of the pre-frontal cortex. Depending on your familiarity level with the band, you may or may not know that every Primus album has a—never strict, but always recurring—sub-genre. These sub-genres are often masked by the intensity of the band’s personality, which we will all too hastily dub “Sinister Silly." But the unique sub-personalities of each effort are not unlike strata in the seven-layer burrito on which Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver enjoys feasting.
Green Naugahyde is their eighth album (if, like me, you count 2003’s dense half hour of Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People EP as being substantial enough to warrant “album” status… but we’ll downgrade 1989’s live Suck On This to a compilation, for dissection convenience). And if all seven of their previous studio works represent a layer in Wynona’s castor Taco-Bell repast, then it’s appropriate to say that Green Naugahyde takes a big bite of the whole thing. Real quickly, let’s summarize the previous layers, so that we might glean a better understanding of where the material on Green Naugahyde is coming from:
Frizzle Fry: It truly gave them their “funk-metal” distinction for which they would go on to be remembered by, even when the metal aspect eased down a bit.
Sailing the Seas of Cheese: This was their “classic rock” album, if it can be even joked that Claypool and the boys ever dipped their toes into classic rock structure. It contains, arguably, their most memorable songs.
Pork Soda: It was Primus’ “Primus” album. The most true to their inner and outer personalities, Pork Soda is their id, their quintessence. It may sound like a cop-out to assign an eponymous sub-genre, but imagine another dimension where Primus is as influential as the Beatles…Pork Soda would be their pop masterpiece.
Tales from the Punchbowl: It’s their art-groove, “jam band” album. And, as is common with capable jam-bands, the hits are grand-slams and the misses are catastrophic.
The Brown Album: Their “prison yard bluegrass” disk; up-tempo story-songs that sound like they were written next to a barrel-fire and recorded under an over-pass. It represents the more playful side of Primus.
Antipop: Aggressive, vocally choral pop-metal. (Arguably their least listenable disk, despite finishing strong with two of their very finest recordings).
Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People: Their “space-prog” exploration. [For the record, the material on Act Like People is one of the main reasons this writer presumes that Les Claypool could have been one of the founding members of The Residents. He would have been 11 years old at the time of their first album, but that doesn’t sound entirely impossible, correct?]
Okay, so all these prior works are the minerals in Green Naugahyde’s multi-vitamin. Let’s go through song by song to see how big a dose everything gets.
1) “Prelude to a Crawl”
It might have been Les Claypool himself who eventually taught critics that indulgence is not a four letter word. Atmosphere-setting interludes are part of the Primus experiences, and what good would the cultural landscape be if our prodigious musicians didn’t spend at least a certain amount of time simply dicking around? This moody minute actually serves a purpose—even if it’s only for Claypool to share his bass tune-up because he sees himself as a one-man orchestra.
2) “Hennepin Crawler”
An ode to a giant metal (presumably cumbersome) pedal-powered car (developed by California arts collective Krank Boom Clank), which up until recently the boys were seen riding in a goofy photo on the homepage of Primusville.com. “Hennepin Crawler” already sounds like a more successful version of everything they tried for on Antipop. It’s upbeat, and oddly catchy despite its darkly psyche-ska feel.
Note: Psyche-ska is a phrase you’ll hear a lot in this review, or “pskachedelic”, if you will. You may also read about ska-opera, or “skopera”. And no, you can’t have a refund on the Internet.
3) “Last Salmon Man”
Last Salmon Man bridges the gap back to Sailing the Seas classic-rock era for two important reasons. One, it features a very analog, straightforward lead bass riff sans the flanger or any other of the many effects processing you’ll hear on bass throughout the GN. Secondly, it’s about fishing. It’s been a little while since Primus’ last fishing song. If I’m not mistaken, the most recent one was Pork Soda’s “The Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon (Fisherman’s Chronicles, Part 3)". It’s possible that I’m missing some subtext on other songs in between—to be fair, I don’t remember what “Dirty Drowning Man” was about, but its vaguely nautical title warrents a look-up to sift for fishing references.
And boy is “Last Salmon Man” a straight-up anthem about fishing. In a disc that’s relatively full of social commentary (probably more so than any Primus album yet), this song is literally about how a fisherman’s dad is worried that “you’ll be the last salmon man of the MacDonagal clan”. This is not to say it’s a bad thing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Claypoool as a songwriter, it’s that he‘s just as good (or better) at writing songs about a slow day dragging in the nets as he is at writing about misappropriated funding for the large hadron collider (which is what I assume all of Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People was about).
My favorite thing about “Last Salmon Man” is Larry’s guitar work. I’ve always said about Primus, “I came for Les, but I stayed for Larry and Tim”. The most classic Primus songs must be hell on Larry because he doesn’t get to riff on them; he has to maintain tasteful, song-long solos. And he plays imaginatively and tightly throughout “LSM,” including one of his better short shred solos to date.
4) “Eternal Consumption Engine”
This two-and-a-half minute jig is the greatest “psychedelic polka”—to use Claypool’s words—in the Primus catalog. Jay Lane hits an impressive array of bells, whistles and wood-block fills in this commentary about consumer culture. A could-be musical accompaniment to Annie Leonard’s “The Story Of Stuff,” “Eternal Consumption Engine” is like a weird music-baby between “Space Farm”, the South Park theme and the intro from “Toys Go Winding Down”.
5) “Tragedy’s A Comin”
This will be our last (and most direct) stop in Antipop land for a while. This bit of ska-metal could be the sequel to “Ballad of Bodacious”. Claypool sometimes works against himself with such a heavy flange effect on his bass, but I understand how sometimes you need your bass to sound like a guitar when you’re playing riffs. Here, he goes back and forth from the clean funky pops during the main theme and bridge, to a flange-drench for the verse and chorus. This song doesn’t seem to be about tragedy in the big picture sense, so much as some low-life named Tragedy who is indeed on his way over.
6) “Eyes of the Squirrel”
For my money, this is what Primus does best: down-tempo, ominous, psychedelic. Love the Flaming Lips as I do, there’s something amazing about rock music that’s simultaneously psychedelic AND threatening. “Eyes of the Squirrel” features octave bass slaps over Jay Lane kick-quadruplets, punctuated by fuzzed-out Les fills and a single snare-hit. Repeat. Ler does what he does best, laying atmosphere over top of everything.
This is already one of my favorite Primus songs. It’s a direct descendent of “My Name Is Mud,” and I personally enjoy it better. Lyrically, it’s a satirical roll-call of modern entertainment saturation, rattled off in between the every fourth measure mantra: “The Eyes of the Squirrel are Watching”. Clearly a tribute to that video of the dramatic squirrel, it mentions reality TV, Octomom, Brangelina, etc. It could be an Electric Six song lyrically, but it could only be a Primus song vocally (and, obviously, musically).
7) “Jilly’s On Smack”
Definitely the most Animals Like People of the bunch, “JoS” is the space-psych summit of the album. After a one-minute intro of chunky looped bass signals, a dissonant mid-register guitar arpeggio with delay frames the four chord bow-struck bass. The six- and-half minute rocker has a psychedelic breakdown in the middle and then goes back into the main theme.
“Jilly’s On Smack… and she won’t be coming back. No, she won’t be coming back… FOR THE HOLIDAYS!” This tune actually sounds like a more rockin’ “Mary the Ice Cube”, and we’re treated to more of that whisper to scream drama. And I got to say, the “…for the holidays!” line is going to rank up there with “Too Many Puppies!”, “Here they come!”, and “shake hands with beef!” for things the fans are going to want to scream along at concerts. Claypool chooses the oddest things for hooks, but hooks they are nonetheless.
8) “Lee Van Cleef”
A visit to Brown land for sure, this ditty about how “we always got a kick out of Lee” has the bouncing playfulness of half the songs on Brown Album. Also, maybe it’s my imagination, but even the drums sound like they hauled in whatever trash-can lids Brain was banging on during those Brown sessions for Jay to pound on.
9) “Moron TV”
This song is really worth getting excited about. It contains probably the grooviest riffs on the album, which would qualify it for their grooviest song since “Over The Falls”—but this has a much harder edge. Maintaining their aggressive, semi-threatening atmosphere, “Moron TV” picks up where “Eyes of The Squirrel’s” social commentary left off. It has a significant touch of ska—not in that loveably cheesy “Duchess and the Proverbial Mindspread” sense, but more in that “what you expected Oysterhead to sound like” sense. This may be the top track on the album, depending on which tempo of Primus you subscribe to. In a vacuum, this probably trumps “Eyes of the Squirrel” because its ska-core breakdown is way more keenly composed (as well as musically apropos) than “Squirrel”’s prog-core outro movement.
One other thing to mention that “Moron TV” represents about Green Naugahyde on the whole: we’re getting much more baritone from Les on vocals (or, as close to baritone as he can get). This is not to say that his effective whine-scream is left in the lurch (i.e. “Mary The Ice Cube’s” “ doesn’t nothin’ ever last forever?”). However, Les’ staple redneck alto is more tastefully utilized, as just a part of his much more dynamic approach on vox.
10) “Green Ranger”
If it can be said that there’s filler on Green Naugahyde, this would be it. Heavy bow-on-upright-bass with a high-register guitar drizzle that’s uncharacteristically boring. The drumming is impressive, but it’s wasted on this song about riding with the Green Ranger. Luckily, it’s short enough that its lack of memorability helps it rather than hurts it.
And we’re back! This is definitely the most “bad-ass” track on Green Naugahyde. It opens with one of Ler’s most aggressive, fuzzed out riffs in over 15 years and is quickly joined in by a middle-finger of a bass riff. Early Primus fans will be glad for this face-puncher. “I used to be a pimp but now I’m ho-in’ for the man!” sings Claypool about commercial sell-outs. It’s a relatively simple song, with an absurdist, opera-style bridge. This would be a great one to see them draw out a bit longer live.
12) “Extinction Burst”
What a climax. “Extinction Burst” is “Bob’s Party Time Lounge” on steroids, and it has roots in every single album, which is impressive because all the movements flow with solidarity in the time span of 5:20 (which is relatively short for one of the “epic” tracks). It’s so frenetic that I’m pretty sure you could connect your iPod to a car battery and play it to jump-start your ride.
13) “Salmon Men”
A wind-down reprisal from “Last Salmon Man,” in the style of Los Bastardos, but toned down a tad and significantly shorter than its respective dad track.
Green Naugahyde is perhaps the first Primus album to avoid settling into a sub-genre, but rather taking from all the styles in Primus’ back catalog. (Although, if you’re on a bar-stool, you have my blessing to refer to it as their ska-funk album.) There are both upsides and downsides to this paradigm. Treating their previous body of work as a buffet line lets them pick and choose the most successful elements of their music to focus on, resulting in a significantly more solid album than many of their efforts; it’s less hit-or-miss than Punchbowl; it’s more accessible and direct than Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People; it’s more lively and entertaining than Pork Soda, and—again—it’s just plain better than Antipop. Realistically, it’s probably the third most thoroughly listenable Primus album after Seas of Cheese and Brown Album. However, the flip-side to this buffet approach is that it’s their first disc in a long while which doesn’t have that one or two tracks which simply annihilate your entire notion of what music can be. There’s no “My Friend Fats”, no “Final Voyage of The Liquid Sky”. There’s no “Return of Sathington Willoughby", “Southbound Pachyderm”, or “Fish On”. And frankly, I’m fine with that. I’m ready for a thoroughly enjoyable Primus album. They can go back to re-inventing the wheel next time.
By the way, the transition to Jay Lane on drums is almost seamless. There’s a feel of that early Frizzle Fry funk-metal in the drumming, but Les and Ler have moved on to more advanced things, so the total package is consistent. Once again, I could use slightly fewer effects on Les’ bass. But on the other hand, this is art, not entertainment. So if Les thinks it’s important at times for his bass-fills to sound like buzzing mosquitos in my brain to reflect the vampiric nature of corporate culture, then who am I to argue?