Pop Life

Flannel File: Primus

Primus circa 1998, Copenhagen, Denmark

As the title of this feature might suggest, '90s nostalgia is in full swing, and one of the orders of the day is reexamining the aesthetic reputation of bands we liked when we were teenagers but of whom we subsequently became embarrassed, swapping them in our esteem hierarchy with the once-cool dads they originally supplanted.

The rehabilitation of '90s alt-rock has begun to pick up steam in the past year, yielding such phenomena as both MTV.com and the Onion's A.V. Club lionizing Stone Temple Pilots, and Slate's Jonah Weiner trying very hard to convince himself that Limp Bizkit was not actually that bad.

As a proud representative of the most irony-challenged large city in America, Rocks Off has enthusiastically embraced this trend that I just made up, running gleeful reevaluations of such Clinton Decade critical punching bags as Dave Matthews Band, Creed and Nickelback. Well, maybe "gleeful" is too strong a word in that last case.

And so, into the fray. The popular-yet-uncool band that seems to me to be most overdue for a second (third?) look is Primus.

It's easy enough to position Primus's unabashed goofiness as the specific kind of cool that doesn't care about being cool. But I'm not going to merely defend the band's reputation against critical opinion- no, that would be too easy. I intend to mount a defense of the one Primus album that managed to be off-puttingly weird even to socially maladjusted Primus fans: The Brown Album.

On their first four studio albums, Primus had developed a notoriously difficult-to-categorize style that blended the instrumental flights-of-fancy of Rush and Genesis, the splattery, rebellious comedy of Frank Zappa and George Clinton, the eclectic vocabulary and ensemble play of the Police, the contrarian weirdness of the Residents, a love of sturgeon fishing, Bakersfield redneckisms, and some metal remnants borrowed from the Bay Area thrash scene.

This mishmash puts them in the company of DMB and Radiohead as one of the few mainstream alt-rock bands to manage legitimate stylistic innovation, as opposed to bands like STP, Creed, and the grunge bands, who basically played hard rock (no judgment implied here). In his review of 1993's Pork Soda, Robert Christgau called Primus "quite possibly the strangest top-10 band ever."

For Primus, their unique, intense and highly technical musical style was the key to their success. The people who were into Primus as adolescents are usually the same people who were into Don Caballero five years later, Hella five years after that and Tera Melos today. A lot of the people who liked Primus were there because of the band's jaw-dropping musicianship and flow, and absorbed the deeper elements of their style without thinking too much about it.

So it was a pretty big shock when the Brown Album dropped in 1997. What stands out about its predecessor, 1995's Tales From the Punchbowl, is the explosive communication between bassist Les Claypool, guitarist Larry LeLonde and drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, along with Claypool's intensely colorful characters.

By contrast, the Brown Album is a study in sepia. After Punchbowl, Alexander quit the band - supposedly dissatisfied with Claypool's lyrical direction; so "Tommy the Cat" was OK, but "Southbound Pachyderm" was too much? - and was replaced with Bryan "Brain" Mantia. Compared to the showy, virtuosic Alexander, Mantia plays almost simplistically on the Brown Album, and the swirling musical interplay between the instruments is reduced to a cartoonish stomp.

As if to emphasize this, Claypool's production takes a 180 from everything Primus has done before, using a small number of room mics and allowing instruments to clip in order to create a "retro" pastiche of a low-tech recording, and making the music sound even clunkier. At the same time, his lyrics have begun to imitate the unsettling pseudo-folk storytelling of Tom Waits, sketching images of frontier brawlers and outlaws, whores and junkies, colored with the carnival-barker's grinning menace and cruel irony that are Claypool's lyrical trademarks.

It's like The Band as reinterpreted by a meth-addicted O. Henry. The laughably unmarketable first single, "Shake Hands with Beef," exemplifies the Brown Album's threatening, stilted sound:

It was a big step to take from the nimble Punchbowl to the lumbering Brown Album, and I'm ashamed to admit I couldn't make it at the time. Neither could critics; the A.V. Club's Stephen Thompson excoriated "Shake Hands With Beef" as "an embarrassing self-parody," while Rolling Stone's Tom Moon derided the band for suffering from an "increasingly obvious soul deficit." (This from the guy who now considers Green Day, Alice in Chains and Alanis "Freaking" Morrisette essential?)

It's completely true that the Brown Album delivers little to none of the awesome musicianship that make Primus' first four albums so much fun. But that's only the surface. The core of what Primus is, its drugged, misanthropic view of human nature and its slyly unhinged musical ideas, remains.

Frustratingly, rather than being celebrated for reimagining their band in a clever, bold and totally unexpected way, critics slammed Primus for departing from a style that they didn't particularly like or even understand to begin with. One of the most prevalent criticisms of Primus, aside from robotically blaming them for Limp Bizkit, was that their music is "silly," which strikes me as a pretty superficial take on a band that wrote songs about homelessness, senseless murder, suicide and LSD.

Yeah, they have a lot of songs about fishing. That's because fishing serves as an escape from the depravity and filth that permeate the world of the Primus character.

Primus - My Name Is Mud

"My Name is Mud," from Pork Soda

The Brown Album may not be Primus's best record. But it is definitely unique, and in what it keeps and throws away, it highlights the soul and artistic integrity of the band. Those wouldn't be excised until 1999's sad sellout attempt Antipop, which Thompson called "Primus's best album in years."


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Daniel Mee