BUTTHOLE SURFERS: ELECTRICLARRYLAND (1996)
1) Birds; 2) Cough Syrup; 3) Pepper; 4) Thermador; 5) Ulcer Breakout; 6) Jingle Of A Dog's Collar; 7) TV Star; 8) My Brother's Wife; 9) Ah Ha; 10) The Lord Is A Monkey; 11) Let's Talk About Cars; 12) LA; 13) Space.
Okay, so we are not going to play it hip here and declare that the Butthole Surfers' brightest moment of commercial glory was a proverbial pile of shit — but let us also face the inevitable: despite the gory album cover and the Hendrix pun of the title, Electriclarryland is simply not even close to Independent Worm Saloon when it comes to good music. It may have been the toning down of the ferociousness of their sound that was responsible for the album climbing up the charts, or it may have been the factor of prolonged exposure and publicity, or perhaps the world at large was a little more adventurous in 1996 before Britney Spears swept it all away, but the fact is, Electriclarryland is decent, but not very good.
With Jeff Pinkus out of the group and Leary taking over bass duties (occasionally shared with Andrew Weiss of the Rollins Band), the Surfers make one more step towards «being normal», and this time, they overstep it, because in the place of aggressive snarling rock'n'roll, fueled by Leary's guitar-god performance, what we get is a bunch of mid-tempo «alt-rock» songs, heavily dependent on lyrics and vocals rather than captivating instrumental work and also influenced by some of the more modern developments in music, such as trip-hop. It seems that the band, either of its own will or, perhaps, pushed by outside provocators, is trying to adapt to contemporary trends — big, big mistake, since for all their revolutionary mind-blowing prowess, the Butthole Surfers were always at their best when guided by their past, not present influences (note: this judgement certainly does not apply to any artist, but it seems oh so true for these guys).
The result is stuff like ʽPepperʼ, a song that got them into the Top 40 on the singles market — a miraculous feat, I guess, but the irony of the situation is that ʽPepperʼ, at most, is just listenable when it comes to separating the band's great stuff from the band's passable stuff. Leary still does his best to get a good psychedelic lead tone going on this slow trip-hoppy cruise, but the solo seems strictly confined to a single melodic pattern, the vocals, whether it's the rapped verses or the sung chorus, are somnambulant in a prison courtyard, and the gruesome story told through the lyrics only seems there to somehow introduce an element of belated shock into the commercially intended performance. No, actually, the groove is still worthwhile — closing your eyes to it and settling into a slow rhythmic wobble can be relaxing — but in the end, this... well, sounds more like the Brian Jonestown Massacre than the Butthole Surfers. And how on Earth this got into the Top 40 in 1996, I'll never know. Did people confuse this with a new Tricky single or what?
Echoes of Worm Saloon's rocky explosions are still felt throughout — even the album opener ʽBirdsʼ has a fast-'n'-furious rock'n'roll punch, although it adds little to the vibe already explored on ʽWho Was In My Room?ʼ and ʽDust Devilʼ. Another fast tempo number, ʽAh Haʼ, prefers to replace distorted hard rock guitars with jangly folk rock guitars, so that they sound like a homeless, toothless version of R.E.M.; and there is at least one bona fide hardcore punk number, ʽUlcer Breakoutʼ, with the good old chainsaw and dog bark and racecar drumming. But either it is the overall context in which they are lodged, or the lack of their own individuality, yet none of these songs suffice to turn the tide in favor of the record.
Oddly enough, when you look at all this with just a formal look, the album remains pretty weird. There is ʽJingle Of A Dog's Collarʼ, a dark folk-pop ballad that seems to have been written from the perspective of a canine character (and ends with some genuine sniffing). There's the risqué ʽMy Brother's Wifeʼ, with heavy use of vocal sampling, loads of white noise, and extra overdubs to reflect the psychosexual commotion of the title character. There's ʽThe Lord Is A Monkeyʼ, a technically successful stab at psychedelic hip-hop with cartoonishly evil rapped vocals and ruthless wah-wah solos. There's ʽLet's Talk About Carsʼ, featuring a classy pop riff over which people seductively speak French for a few minutes. In short, there's all it usually takes to get a classy, involving, unpredictable pop album.
But somehow, in the end, it just doesn't want to click. Where the mix between «normalcy» and «madness» on Worm Saloon seemed just perfect, here it is as if «normal» and «weird» keep segregated to two different channels and do not mix at all. So I keep getting torn between the total sensual puzzle of ʽLet's Talk About Carsʼ — and the total openness and even genericity of something like ʽTV Starʼ (a ballad whose chorus goes "Christina, la-la-la, I love you so", if you can believe it). None of the individual songs are awful, but together, they do not amount to an impressive performance. Not that I would imply that «mainstream involvement» ended up eating away the band's essence — rather, they just tried to do something different here, and could not play up to their usual strengths in the process. The record is still well worth a look, but it not only seems weak and lagging next to the band's high standards of quality, it also seems kind of dated to its time period, and Butthole Surfers feel so much greater when they are not attached to any particular time period — not so blatantly, at least.