There is a two-part video from the first Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee in which Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade cover Thela Hun Ginjeet, a well-known track by the famous British prog-rock band King Crimson. It perfectly showcases not only Claypool’s talent on the bass guitar but also his idiosyncrasies and playful eccentricity.
His interpretation of the song (the title, incidentally, is an anagram of “heat in the jungle”, slang for city crime), and, more particularly, his solo riffs, amply demonstrate why he is probably rock’s bassist extraordinaire du jour. Claypool, a slap bassist and singer best known as the leader of the American rock band Primus, is an inveterate experimenter, digging into diverse genres such as psych-rock, funk and metal but always creating a trademark sound characterized by his unconventional bass playing, his nasal vocals, and his high-adrenalin romps on the stage when he’s performing live.
Like Claypool, Sean Lennon (son of John and Yoko) is associated with various projects, most prominent of which is The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (Goastt), a folkie, psychedelic pop band that his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl and he formed. There is a video of the duo—Muhl playing guitars, melodica and accordion, and Lennon playing an acoustic guitar—doing an unplugged, spare session as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.
The four songs they perform blend folk and pop, and are tender and soulful, Lennon’s voice bearing the unmistakeable influence of his father’s vocal style. On the three albums that Goastt has released, the sound is more fleshed out, but the style is similar to the NPR gig, laid-back and relaxed.
The reason I began by citing the two videos—of Claypool’s and Lennon’s—is because if you check them out, you will see that generically, sonically, and in terms of showmanship, the two couldn’t be more different. Lennon melds pop with folk and a hint of the avant-gardism that his mother Yoko’s music has always had. But Claypool is a hard rocker and his music is loud, deep and very often funky because of his rambunctious bass playing style.
But here’s the real surprise: Claypool and Lennon have a project together, which they hatched in 2016. It’s called The Claypool Lennon Delirium and they have two full-length albums out, the latest of which, South Of Reality, came out in February. The surprise is a pleasant one because the unlikely collaboration between Claypool, 55, and Lennon, 43, works really well.
On South Of Reality, besides Claypool on his thundering bass (as well as keyboards) and Lennon primarily on guitar, there is also Paulo Baldi on drums and a couple of additional vocalists. But it is the effect that the two create with nine songs (most of them longer than 5 minutes) that is remarkable. Theirs is not an “easy listening” sort of sound. But it is unique. With Lennon’s delicate, soulful vocals, and Claypool’s bouncy rhythms punctuated by his exceptional bass lines, they are able to create a nearly hallucinogenic vibe. The compositions don’t fit copybook descriptions of what rock songs need to be; neither do they conform to conventional definitions of genre. It is an unlikely marriage of genres, prog-rock and funk meet psychedelic pop and folk, yet they all seem to get along incredibly well.
Although the nine tracks are credited jointly to the duo, some of the songs on South Of Reality have Lennon’s distinctly Beatles-influenced touch (example: Boriska), while others have Claypool’s Primus-like, funk-meets-hard rock sound (examples: Toady Man’s Hour and Easily Charmed By Fools). Still, all nine songs share a common trippy feel. In 2016, when the duo released their first collaborative effort, Monolith Of Phobos, the same trippy vibe was in evidence, probably even to a larger extent.
While critics loved its experimental quirkiness, it was an album that could appeal more to die-hard fans of psychedelic progressive rock and less to casual rock music lovers. Then it may have also seemed that this was a one-off collaboration between two talented musicians and one that might not be repeated.
Claypool and Lennon have proved that wrong. On South Of Reality, there are still recurring elements of quirkiness, but the overall sound has been finessed into a form that could still qualify as psychedelic “head” music and yet appeal to a broader audience, including rock music fans who aren’t afraid of occasional aural experiments.
There is also the matter of the song lyrics. Some of South Of Reality’s songs contain social and political comment. On Easily Charmed By Fools, the vacuous addiction of today’s youth to social media and the rise of right-wing voters come under attack. But Claypool and Lennon are not sermonizers. Inherent in their lyrics is light-heartedness and dry wit (example: “They’re easily charmed by fools/Easily charmed by fools/ Drawn to artificial light/She’s drawn to artificial light/ Like an insect in the night/Drawn to artificial light”).
The two musicians are unafraid of pushing the boundaries and they do that in great measure on South Of Reality. Songs change course midstream, sonically as well as lyrically, and often unpredictably so. On Amethyst Realm, for instance, there are two extended instrumental breaks that take the song into distinctly different directions. And, if you’re wondering about the quirkiness of the band, it’s a song about a woman who leaves her spouse because she falls in love with a ghost.
South Of Reality is an album to be savoured, undisturbed. My suggestion: Jam a good pair of headphones on your ears, crank up the volume and listen to it, preferably with the lights dimmed. Yes, it’s trippy music.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Amethyst Realm’ from ‘South Of Reality’
2. ‘Easily Charmed By Fools’ from ‘South Of Reality’
3. ‘Boriska’ from ‘South Of Reality’
4. ‘Oxycontin Girl’ from ‘Monolith Of Phobos’
5. ‘Ohmerica’ from ‘Monolith Of Phobos’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.