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CD Review: PRIMUS Green Naugahyde

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Time off has been good to Primus.  Having seemingly fizzled out with 1999's artistically disastrous Antipop – stunt cast with such head-scratching guest appearances as Toms Morello and Waits, not to mention songs produced by Matt Stone and Fred Durst – the band went into hibernation mode… or, more accurately, they split up indefinitely, with Larry Lalonde mostly laying low over the years while Les Claypool conversely went apeshit with a plethora of "side" projects (well, they were often side projects for the pick up squad backing Claypool, at least).

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Claypool thrived away from the spotlight.  Playing largely to a choir of diehard converts, he built on the freaky jam band aesthetic of 1997's underrated Brown Album and promptly forgot all about the bizarre, misguided nu metal and cracker funk experiments of Antipop.  Much like other bands with dedicated fan bases like Phish and Clutch, Claypool became a cult touring warhorse who could basically do what he wanted, knowing that his audience would always be there so long as he didn't betray them.

Throughout it all, Primus would occasionally reconvene, nearly always for the sole purpose of touring on the back of their existing corpus, but they did release an under-the-radar EP of new material in 2003 that was intended as the soundtrack to a DVD included in the same package.  It was not particularly well received.

Perhaps the semi-frequent touring is responsible for Green Naugahyde being released to little fanfare, with not enough time off having lapsed between gigs for it to seem like a true comeback.  You could also chalk up the public indifference to mixed reviews.  If so, that would be unfortunate.  Naugahyde is not the best album Primus have ever released – not by a long shot – but it's the closest thing to a return to form since 1995's Tales from the Punchbowl.  Even that is kind of a backhanded compliment, "Hennepin Crawler" and "Last Salmon Man" being right up there amongst the elite entries in the Primus catalog.

What those songs have done is right the wrongs inherent on Antipop and Brown Album (the latter being instrumentally compelling but skeletal and underwritten from a composition standpoint; the former being just kind of an out-and-out trainwreck).  Both of those records relied on lyrical quirks and bass hooks almost exclusively, having forgotten what made albums like Frizzle Fry and Sailing the Seas of Cheese so compelling:  a narrative framework to hinge the music on, actual story songs that had a start and end point both thematically and musically.  You can pretty much track the decline of Primus Era One entirely around the extent to which they stopped writing lyrical novellas and just started shouting out dada phrases over jam band noodling (Punchbowl is easily the pivot by that standard, though evidence of concern manifested itself in smaller doses on Pork Soda as well).

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Naugahyde is, unfortunately, not entirely devoid of such ham fisted noodling.  Recurring chants of "everything is made in China" in a song titled "Eternal Consumption Engine" is neither sociologically profound nor aesthetically novel (besides: why rile your future masters?).  Similarly, "HOINFODAMAN" – as in "I used to be a pimp but now I'm hoin' fo da man" – tries way too hard to do that thing where uncool white people from the suburbs playfully describe themselves in the kind of "playa" terminology usually associated with the inner city, all the while pretending like they were the first ones to think of it.

But just when you think that the overly labored, self consciously quirky material is going to sink the rest of the album, along come efforts like "Extinction Burst" and "Eyes of the Squirrel", both true, old school Primus in the "song structure first, corny lyrics second" vein.  "Lee Van Cleef" splits the difference with a reliance on a one trick pony bassline and "wink wink" lyrics, but the hook is catchy, the song has brevity working in its favor, and the lyrics center around a creative motif we can all get behind: "all the other snaps want to be like Clint… but I want to be like Lee Van Cleef".

Ultimately, then, what we have here is a flawed compromise between where Primus left off and where they began.  You've got about half an album's worth of vintage tunes worthy of Seas of Cheese or Pork Soda sprinkled amongst the completist-only joke band aesthetic Primus originally flamed out on.  Me?  I think there is enough great material here to hint at a permanent return to form, not to mention make for an album worthy of repeat listens… but until bands start making good on their threats of abandoning the album format and releasing singles exclusively, I've gotta judge everything contained within the shrink wrap.  As such, the best I can do here is a

7.5 out of 10

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Green Naugahyde is out now on ATO / Prawn Song Records

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