November 29, 2006

CD Review: Primus - They Can't All Be Zingers

Primus is, hands down, one of the most unique, inventive, and quirky bands I have ever encountered. I am sure I missing some other weird acts, but I can think of nary one at the moment that can match the odd abilities that this trio display. They defy the laws of the traditional genre, not clearly fitting into any. They have progressive, funk, jazz, punk, rock, and other genre flairs all mixed together into this sonic brew that is tantalizing, infectious, and impossible to ignore.

By the time I encountered them they had already released their debut, Frizzle Fry, a live EP, Suck on This, Live!, and I am pretty sure their breakthrough, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, was on store shelves. The first song I heard was "Tommy the Cat," featuring Tom Waits as the voice of the title character. It was on the first rate soundtrack to Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (a most excellent soundtrack to accompany a totally non-heinous movie). It was a weird song that didn't sound like anything I had heard before.

This experience was very early on in my musical adventures, I admit that I was a late bloomer in this regard and had, and still have, a lot of ground to cover. I was also in my "I want to play a guitar" phase, which failed miserably. During this period I had a friend who played bass (and I hope she still does, she was pretty good) who was a Primus fan, she lent me a well worn tape of Frizzle Fry. From that moment forward there was no turning back, I could be counted among the Primus faithful.

They Can't All Be Zingers is a "best of" collection covering all of their major releases, but skips over things like Suck on This, Miscellaneous Debris, and Rhinoplasty, which contain covers and such that are well worth tracking down for your collection, particularly Debris with its excellent cover of Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar." Back to the CD at hand, it is 16 tracks collected together allowing you to follow the progress the band made over the years.

As I take a tour through Primus of years past I cannot help but wonder how they were ever signed to a major label in the first place, much less lasted long enough to generate enough songs for a greatest hits compilation. This has nothing to do with me not liking them, I adore them and what they brought to music. It is just that Les Claypool and his compatriots are just plain weird. They do not follow trends, they march to the beat of a different drummer. They take a different perspective on things like melody, rhythm, song structure, and they stretch the boundaries of music as art. They are not a pop commodity, yet they found a niche in the market where they have thrived, giving them a place to ply their practice.

The album is presented chronologically, beginning with a trio from their debut album and showcasing them with the strongest "rock" sound in their music, exemplified by one of my favorites "Too Many Puppies." It is a song that brings to mind the military practices of corrupting the young, and featuring the heaviest riff from their collection. From there we move to the Sailing the Seas of Cheese trilogy with another favorite in "Jerry was a Race Car Driver." A song that tells the story of Jerry in a way that is so completely catchy. It is a good example of Claypool's songwriting approach, he seems more apt to create a character and tell a story than sing a song. Actually, it reminds me of Warren Zevon's knack for telling a compelling story complete with an odd character at its center. Rounding out the intial trilogy of offerings are a trio from the more experimental (if that can even apply here) Pork Soda. They don't have my favorite, "The Air is Getting Slippery," but they do have the impressively percussive story of a man named Mud.

Kicking off the second trilogy of full length albums are three from Tales from the Punchbowl, featuring the funky, jazzy, progressive epic "Over the Electric Grapevine." An overlooked track here is "Mrs. Blaileen," but there isn't enough room for all of our favorites. Next is a pair from my least favorite album from the Primus Catalog, The Brown Album, although it does have the quite good "Shake Hands with Beef." Closing out the final major release is "Coattails of a Dead Man" from Antipop, a fictionalized take of the Courtney Love/Kurt Cobain story, and an amazing listen. To chime in with another overlooked favorite, I love 'Lacquer Head." Perhaps I should put together my own Best of Primus?

Zingers finishes its lengthy run with "Mary the Ice Cube" from the DVD/CD EP Animals Should Not try to Act Like People. Not really one of my favorites, but still an interesting song with plenty to like. While I don't love everything that Primus has done, there is a lot to like about just about everything they have released.

Putting together a collection like this is no easy task. Sure, there are some obvious songs to include, like "Tommy the Cat," "John the Fisherman," and "Wynonna's Big Brown Beaver," but there are at least as many controversial or borderline selections. I do applaud the compilers here, while some of my favorites didn't make the cut, this has helped me remember what I loved about the band, as I haven't really listened to them in awhile.

If you like Primus, I have to recommend that you check out some of Les Claypool's other projects like The Holy Mackerel, The Frog Brigade, and Oysterhead (with Phish's Trey Anastasio and The Police's Stewart Copeland). Even better, try to see him live, I did so earlier this year and it was quite an experience.

Before closing, I must comment on the packaging. It is a clever plastic wrap designed to look like a package of individually packaged cheese slices, right down to the way the label is shown. I like it, but I also don't like it. They did a similar thing on The Brown Album, the songs are on the wrapper, so when you rip it off, you are left with a jewel case that looks like cheese with no information or tracklisting. I would at least like to have the tracklisting on the back.

Bottomline. This is a great summary of Primus' illustrious band, and which Claypool says "was never supposed to accomplish the kind of things we accomplished." They have definitely left a mark, and continue to leave one on the music world. A collection like this usually marks the end of band, but something tells me we have not heard the last of Primus. Get this album, whether you are an old fan, or one of the curious, it is well worth the money and the time to listen.

Highly Recommended.


Anonymous said...

Noticed your passing comment about Warren Zevon. You might be interested to know that there's a campaign to get Warren into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the effort to keep his music alive (yeah, I know, but it's the only RnR HoF we've got!). You can link to a petition that you sign with your mouse at Also, next May Warren's ex-wife, Crystal Zevon, will have a bio, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon," published by HarperCollins/ECCO. Warren asked her to write it when he was diagnosed, and it will have EVERYTHING in it.

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