CD Review of Baby Walrus by Baby Walrus
Recommended if you like
Captain Beefheart, Old Time Relijun, Devendra Banhartds
Label
Slumber Party Records
Baby Walrus: Baby Walrus

Reviewed by Jason Thompson

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B
aby Walrus’ self-titled debut is one of those albums listeners are either going to “get” the first time they hear it, or just be turned off immediately. It’s one of those works that seemingly challenges anyone’s expectations about what indie pop is or isn’t, one of those albums that could be considered an Artistic Statement, but at the same time also sounds like a band just having fun making an album in the bedroom and doing whatever comes to mind. Yet the album is a unified whole; its short track lengths (the average is a little over two minutes, the longest is four, and the shortest is 19 seconds) blend in with one another to create an overall picture of slightly zonked avant-garde pop with enough accessibility to keep you listening all the way through.

Featuring Chris Senseney on guitar, keys and vocals, Dylan Strimple on guitars and keys, and John P. Voris on percussion, this trio has created a work that straddles the weirdness of classic Trout Mask Replica-era Captain Beefheart (though minus a lot of the extreme disjointedness), Beatle-like pop sensibilities, and the ongoing insular mysticism of Devendra Banhart. When the album works, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever heard, but unfortunately, as with similar-minded releases that have come and gone in the past, its esotericism can also be its downfall. Some of the ideas and experiments just don’t work as well as others, and can therefore make a few of the tracks here a bit tedious, even when they’re so short.

The opening track, “Ghostish,” sports groovy electric piano that will be reused in a number of songs here, rattletrap percussion, fuzzy guitar, and a good hook to welcome you in. Then there’s “Nobody’s Got a Beautiful Heart,” whose main sections sound like Beefheart dancing with Jandek before slipping into a bizarre, double-time, slightly rockabilly bridge that is somewhat reminiscent of They Might Be Giants’ educational tracks before careening right back into the original twisted groove. This track right here will be the acid test for many. The adventurous will want to hear what comes next; others might want to go hide.

“Airplane Shuttle Blues” is a droning instrumental, built around long, drawn-out and creepy organ chords, while echo-laden moaning filters into the back of the mix. Then there’s “Cold Cold Stone,” which gets a funky Jon Spencer Blues Explosion groove on before retreating for the slightly tribal “Some Dawns No Bird Will Sing” that does the Old Time Relijun/Devendra Banhart thing with varied results. After that, “Grape Jelly’s Origins” and its wheezing harmonium or concertina or whatever the heck it actually is just comes off as a bad idea, period.

“Red Horses” is good indie blues rock, while “Bad Metal” sounds like its title literally suggests, with a touch of merry-go-round music tossed in. But the duo of “Flipless in What Plastic Box and Riot Police” is where things go a bit too far south, with their dissonant and slapdash experimental qualities getting stuck in the proverbial mud. “Fishing for Worms” almost works enough to save the day, but one can listen to it and wish they had played it straight, sort of like when you listen to “Downs” on Big Star’s Sister Lovers and wish that Alex Chilton hadn’t purposely sabotaged that tune.

After a couple more complete and noisy duds (“January Baseball”; “Brain Laxative”), Baby Walrus unleashes the best song on the album with “Planted in Cement,” another electric piano-driven number with enough good hooks and memorable lines to easily make it the stand out of the show. Of course, this moment does not last as the closing “Harald” and “A Canary in a Brown Mess” do their best to irritate. They succeed quite well.

Groups like Baby Walrus are always going to do their own thing, no matter what. While that is an admirable quality, when one hears the sorts of great pop this group is capable of when it isn’t doing its experimental noodling around, it’s hard not to come away from the experience feeling like there should have been more – something that could make sense of all the other sounds. But such is the way with experimental rock that waves its own freak flag proudly. You either get it or you don’t. Unfortunately, there is enough to get here and enjoy that the other stuff just seems like a jumbled bit of a mess.

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