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The Brown Album Play

The replacement of drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander with Brian "Brain" Mantia doesn't affect Primus' sound in any notable way on The Brown Album. That isn't surprising -- Les Claypool's side project Sausage sounds identical to Primus. What's notable about The Brown Album is how Claypool moves Primus even further into progressive and jazz-rock territory, concentrating entirely on the instrumental interplay of the group and caring very little for writing full-fledged songs. "Shake Hands With Beef," the first single from the album, has a reasonably amusing adolescent lyric, but the real attraction of the song is how its thunderous bass riff weaves in and out with the syncopated drums and avant guitar. In that sense, it does let the listener know what the album is about, and very few Primus fans should be disappointed by what The Brown Album delivers. It's standard Primus -- all instrumental interplay and adolescent humor -- but it's delivered with more finesse and skill than ever. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Green Naugahyde Play

With that rare combination of virtuosity and humor, Primus have always been able to push the envelope creatively without ever falling victim to the kind of navel-gazing that can plague more prog-oriented bands, making them turn inward until there’s nothing left but theory. On its seventh studio album, Green Naugahyde, the band continues this tradition with a collection of songs that are both technically dazzling and perfectly irreverent. In a lot of ways, the album feels like Primus are getting back to basics, with songs like “Hennepin Crawler” immediately evoking the directness of Frizzle Fry. This is in part thanks to drummer Jay Lane, who helped to shape Primus' sound before they made their debut (and also played in Sausage with Claypool and early Primus guitarist Todd Huth). In a way, Lane’s reunion with Primus helps to freshen up their sound by taking it back to where it was in the band's strongest era, recapturing the magic of those earlier albums in a way that evokes them without feeling like he’s ripping them off. While fans might be disappointed that the album doesn’t feature “Herb” Alexander, they’ll have a hard time being disappointed with Green Naugahyde, an album that will satisfy those in the know while continuing, as Primus always have, to baffle the uninitiated. ~ Gregory Heaney, Rovi

Pork Soda Play

Once audiences got a chance to hear Primus' instantly recognizable sound, driven by Les Claypool's bizarrely virtuosic bass riffs, their audience grew by leaps and bounds. It was enough to make their second major-label album, Pork Soda, one of the strangest records ever to debut in the Top Ten. Stylistically, it isn't much different from Sailing the Seas of Cheese, though the band does stretch out and jam more often. This can result in some overly repetitive sections, since Claypool's riffs are the basis for most of the compositions, but it also showcases the band's ever-increasing level of musicianship. Their ensemble interplay continues to grow in complexity and musicality, and that's really what fans want from a Primus record anyway. The material isn't quite as consistent as Seas of Cheese, though there are numerous high points; among them are "My Name Is Mud," on which Claypool plays his instrument like percussion, and "Mr. Krinkle," where he switches to a bowed upright bass. There are hints of lyrical darkness stripped of the band's usual goofiness (especially in the suicide lament "Bob"), but for the most part, the humor is again split between eccentric character sketches, cheery paranoia, and annoying novelties (with a slightly higher percentage of the latter than before). Still, despite occasional flaws, what makes Pork Soda a success is that the band keeps finding novel variations on their signature sound, even if they never step out of it. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi

Frizzle Fry Play

Primus' first studio album wouldn't necessarily be a surprise to anyone familiar with their Suck on This days, not least because a good chunk of that album ended up being represented here. Not that this was surprising, but what was pleasant was how well and easily the at-once frenetic and extremely precise way the trio had around its spastic rhythms, translated into a great effort away from the stage. Certainly the fact that Les Claypool had once tried out for Metallica was clear enough with the doomy metal opening of "To Defy the Laws of Tradition," but once Claypool started singing about brides choosing colors other than white for marriages, the band's own world came to the fore. It's pretty easy to see in retrospect how much of a melange went into the group's work. Nods but thankfully few outright steals to everything from Frank Zappa's arch humor and Funkadelic's sprawl to the Police's early, spare effectiveness crop up and, indeed, so does plenty of Metallica (the title track's extreme climax in particular). But whether it's due to Claypool's reedy, whacked-out voice or the fact that just about every song seems like it could be a soundtrack to a moshpit gone wild, something about Frizzle Fry is ultimately and perfectly of its time and place. The tightly wired and wound lope of "John the Fisherman" probably remains the most concentrated blast of them all, but nods should also go to the grinding march/stomp "Too Many Puppies," with its wry and worried vision of an overcrowded future, and the equally slow death crunch of "The Toys Go Winding Down." Then there's the already established live fave "Pudding Time," which is one of the goofiest anti-celebrations of consumer culture around; and all the better for it. ~ Ned Raggett, Rovi

Sailing the Seas of Cheese Play

The first Primus album to achieve much widespread airplay (thanks to its release on a major), and the one that broke them on MTV, Sailing the Seas of Cheese completely redefined the possibilities of the electric bass in rock music for those who'd never heard the group before. Slapping like a funk player, but strumming power chords and finger-tapping like a metal guitar hero, Les Claypool coaxed sounds from his instrument that had rarely if ever been made the focus of a rock band. Claypool's riffs were so full and dominant that they hardly needed to be doubled by guitarist Larry LaLonde (and wouldn't have had the same effect anyway), which freed him up on most songs to launch into dissonant, atonal solos that essentially functioned as texture, complementing Claypool's oddly whimsical sense of melody. The combination results in a weird atmosphere that could be transformed into something dark or eerie, but Claypool's thin, nasal voice and demented blue-collar persona place the record firmly in the realm of the cheerfully bizarre. The compositions are mostly riff-driven, fleshing out their heavy metal roots with prog rock tricks from Rush and Frank Zappa, as well as the novelty side of Zappa's sense of humor. The willful goofiness may alienate some listeners, but it can also obscure some genuinely dark humor, and it never detracts from the band's frequently stunning musicianship. Somewhat analogous to jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Claypool hasn't inspired many direct imitators because of his tremendous feats of dexterity. But his stature as a virtuoso able to take his instrument into previously undreamed-of realms is without question. Though Sailing the Seas of Cheese tones down Primus' penchant for jamming, it's the tightest, most song-oriented representation of their jaw-dropping, one-of-a-kind style. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi

Miscellaneous Debris Play

What makes this 5-song EP of covers Primus's best release is the material. For once, Les Claypool's crew plays actual songs instead of sketching out a few ideas as an excuse for jamming. As a result, Miscellaneous Debris isn't as weird and alienating as previous albums, and often their reinterpretations -- from the clever ribbing of XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel" and Pink Floyd's "Have A Cigar" to the relatively respectful readings of The Meters, the Residents and Peter Gabriel's "Intruder" -- show flashes of brilliance, largely due to the loose yet focused musicianship. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Tales from the Punchbowl Play

By now, Primus' modus operandi is clear and well-established: twisted bass/drum grooves reminiscent of King Crimson gone horribly, horribly wrong, insane ringmaster vocals with cartoonish lyrics, and cutting, off-the-wall guitar. There is much unabashed prog rock in Primus' sound, which even the thick dollops of irony that the band seeks to impart to its compositions are unable to mask completely. Primus' musicianship continues to improve, with the intonation of Les Claypool's trademark fretless bass (a sore spot in the past) more spot-on than ever, and guitarist Larry LaLonde's Fripp-isms are truly convincing for the first time. The funk influences that have always been hinted at on previous Primus records seem more convincing here, as Claypool and drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander lay down some extremely grooving figures, as on the Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque "chorus" to "Mrs. Blaileen." Of course, the high-energy angular rhythms that Primus is known and loved for are as present as ever; they are just pulled off with greater zest and looser precision (if there is such a thing) than they have in the past. LaLonde in particular seems to have improved a great deal between Pork Soda and Tales From the Punchbowl. His dissonances seem a bit more calculated and less gratuitous and lazy than they often came off before. With high energy and full of surprises, Tales From the Punchbowl is one of Primus' finer discs. ~ Daniel Gioffre, Rovi

Rhinoplasty Play

Rhinoplasty? Call it Miscellaneous Debris, Pt. 2. An EP of covers and live cuts designed to buy time between albums, Rhinoplasty is another small treasure for fans. When Primus covers songs, it rarely sticks to the original recorded versions, preferring to turn in new, sometimes startling arrangements that are often unpredictable. If the band hasn't chosen any surprising covers -- there are more Peter Gabriel and XTC tunes, as well as Police, Stanley Clarke, Metallica, and Jerry Reed songs, plus a new version of their own "Too Many Puppies" -- it makes up for it with great performances. Rhinoplasty is certainly an EP intended for the dedicated, but it does the most important thing any specialist release can do -- it doesn't disappoint. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Antipop Play

On the surface, all Primus albums seem to sound alike, especially to outsiders (read: anyone who either respects the group but doesn't get them, or the minority that actively hates them, particularly Les Claypool's demented comedy schtick). That's not really true, even if the same basic elements remain in place each time, no matter who is in the band. And Primus has never tried to shake things up as much as they do on their seventh album, AntiPop. Primus enlisted a dizzying array of collaborators -- Stewart Copeland, Tom Waits, James Hetfield, Tom Morello, Jim Martin, Matt Stone, Martina, and Fred Durst among them -- all in the purpose of challenging themselves to find different dimensions to its music. Some play or sing, some produce, but it's amazing how much each individual guest changes the tone of the music. It's not always for the best, but it keeps things fresh, if not necessarily coherent. Though there are a couple of good lyrics here, this is by and large an album about music; it would have been even better if it had been primarily an instrumental album, actually, since the vocals get in the way occasionally. By now, the popping bass, dissonance, and angular riffs don't seem like schtick, but the lyrics and singing do. Still, it's possible to get past those and hear AntiPop as one of Primus' most ambitious and best efforts. No, they're not always successful, but no two songs sound the same, and some collaborations are among the best things Primus has ever recorded. AntiPop is dense music that isn't afraid to be goofy or fall on its face -- and even if it's not to your particular taste, it's hard not to respect this. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People Play

Before and after Sailing the Seas of Cheese, Primus is an entirely different band. Well almost. While Les Claypool's oddball and quirky sense of humor has remained intact throughout it all, the trio transformed musically over the years. Early on, it appeared as though Primus was more about songwriting, before later reinventing itself as a Grateful Dead-worshipping outfit that loved to put jamming before songwriting. On the CD/DVD double-disc Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, the classic Claypool/Larry LaLonde/Tim Alexander lineup has been reunited for five new tracks. Fans hoping that Primus would return to streamlined songs will be disappointed, as the band has picked up right where it left off -- with three of the five tracks stretching past six minutes. The shorter tracks fare better, including "Pilcher's Squad," a song about a notorious London police detective who used to bust rock musicians in the '60s, before he was convicted of planting evidence. While hardcore fans will want to hear what Claypool and the boys have been up to lately in the recording studio, the main attraction of Animals is its exceptional DVD. Included are all of Primus' promo videos (including great and imaginative clips for "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver," "Tommy the Cat," and "My Name Is Mud"), as well as the 1992 Cheesy Home Video and live clips from throughout the group's career. ~ Greg Prato, Rovi

They Can't All Be Zingers Play

The alt-rock revolution of the '90s opened the doors to the mainstream for a bunch of weirdos, chief among them Primus, the Bay Area-based trio led by bassist/singer/prankster Les Claypool. From the start, they were alternative primarily because they didn't quite fit any other category. Their roots were in the Bay Area metal scene, which kind of fit since they were indeed heavy even if they weren't quite metallic, plus they shared an instrumental virtuosity not uncommon to metal, even if in Primus' case it often sounded like an extrapolation of Frank Zappa -- and that was in large part due to Claypool's satiric lyrics, equally as cynical and vulgar as Zappa, but delivered without the same level of pretension (although he did often manage to nail part of Frank's condescension). But above all, Primus was jokey, their music exploding in garish colors as if it was a Tex Avery cartoon, which the gleefully grotesque clay and cartoon album covers resembled. They jammed, but their exaggerated rhythms, dissonant chords, and intricate riffs made it all sound like a soundtrack to absurd antics. Their songs were peppered with characters like Tommy the Cat, John the Fisherman, Jerry the Race Car Driver, Mr. Krinkle, and a murderer called Mud, all personified by Claypool in a voice that sounded like he held his nose while he sang. Not quite the raw ingredients for a huge band, but Primus came along at the right time, with their breakthrough second album, 1991's Sailing the Seas of Cheese, arriving not long after Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers made funk-metal popular, and not long before Nirvana made all underground rock commercially viable. Primus rode this wave all the way toward the top of the Billboard charts, as their third record, 1993's Pork Soda, debuted at number seven, leading toward a headlining slot on the third Lollapalooza that year. They weren't as huge as Nirvana or Pearl Jam, but there's little question that Primus was one of the big alt-rock bands in America during the peak of alt-rock, and they did it without a commercial crossover to their name.
But they did have a number of MTV and modern rock radio staples in the '90s, and they're all collected on 2006's They Can't All Be Zingers, the band's first compilation. Removed from their brief, inexplicable peak, these songs still sound strange, but not necessarily in the way they were intended -- and if ever there was a band that tried to sound strange, it was Primus. As this well-chosen comp illustrates through its selection of hits and album tracks, they were self-consciously funny-sounding without quite being funny, deliberately abrasive yet never quite rocking. They were certainly not grunge, nor were they really rooted in punk the way so many alternative rock bands were: they were an arty jam band, which is the reason why Claypool wound up forming collectives with other arty jammers such as Phish's Trey Anastasio and the Police's Stewart Copeland when Primus was on one of their many hiatuses. That artiness and virtuosity is abundant on They Can't All Be Zingers, which is really all the casual Primus fan or '90s nostalgist needs, since a little of this goes a long, long way for all but the faithful. In a way, the manic "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver," "Tommy the Cat," with its Tom Waits cameo, or the crude but funny "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" still retain their power: they still sound boldly colorful and willfully annoying, but even if you're ready to turn off any of the songs by the time they reach the second verse, it's still hard not to admire Primus for their sheer musicianship as well as how they stuck to their defiantly weird guns. As this comp proves, they didn't change much from their debut through to their 2003 EP Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, and even if that's not strictly your cup of tea, it's hard not to admire that -- and hard not to be a bit nostalgic for a time when a band like this could sneak onto the charts and become platinum-selling artists with music as odd as this. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
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