CD Review of Fancy by Les Claypool

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Released: 2007
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Frank Zappa died in 1993, but his spirit and music lives on. Dweezil, his son, is touring the country playing his father’s music in a revue aptly titled Zappa Plays Zappa. Meanwhile, Les Claypool keeps following his own twisted muse very much in the Zappa spirit – mixing and matching genres, instruments with wacky lyrics, and a strange vocal delivery. Claypool isn’t as fixated with genitals and the bizarre things you can do with them or pushing against socially acceptable mores as Zappa was, but he does make a fascinating sound combining elements of jazz, funk, rock and other stuff. Claypool doesn’t so much sing as he phrases within a character’s voice. He uses a vocal effects microphone as often as not, whereas Zappa used a flat delivery and didn’t sing as much as he talked through songs. Both Zappa and Claypool have exceptionally loyal fan bases who have been rewarded with complicated and twisted music that other audiences don’t get. In fact, many people really don’t like this stuff. Good, it’s just like a dinner your brother hates; that leaves more for us.

Fancy is a document of the 2006 tour in which Claypool took a rather interesting band on the road promoting his Of Wales and Woe record. The band consisted of Skerik on tenor and bass saxophones; Mike Dillon on vibraphone, marimba and percussion; Gabby La La on sitar, ukulele, theremin; and Paulo Baldi (of Cake) on drums. This eclectic collection of instruments and musicians works well. Any drummer affiliated with Claypool has to be good, and Baldi holds his own. Gabby La La plays a giant electric sitar with a lot of effects that makes it sound like a guitar a good chunk of the time. The inclusion of a vibraphone player is another interesting Zappa parallel. This is jazz/rock from hell, with a funk/progressive/alternative underbelly. “Holy Mackerel” absolutely kicks ass with a funky bass line and some great sax work. From the fake Primus intro to the weird musings of Claypool before the tune completely kicks in, “Mackerel” is fun, fucked up and totally Claypool. “Phantom Patriot” at 10:26 and “Cosmic Highway” at 12:08 allow the entire band to shine. These are journeys into the musical head of Claypool, filled with sitar solos, vibraphones and all the bass notes you can cram into the structure. I normally cannot stand the sound of a sitar, but the way it is played here makes it a cool foil for Claypool and his musical vision. The songs are all from (mainly solo) projects other than Primus with one exception. He plays “American Life” from “Sailing the Seas of Cheese” in the encores, sans band (and with a bass that looks like a banjo).

The video quality is decent, but a little too darkly illuminated for my taste. The footage was shot by several specially selected fans and the audio feed is from the board and “tapers” (recordings) made at the shows. The extra, a 22-minute montage of Claypool’s bizarre and often funny in- and between-song banter, is interesting. Mr. Claypool, I bet Mr. Zappa is smiling, wherever he might be.

~R. David Smola