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Published: 2004/03/30
by Karl Kukta

Beautiful Seizure – Hairy Apes BMX

One of the editorial decisions I struggle with when reviewing jamband CDs
(as well as releases from bands whose musical eclecticism places them at the
periphery of the scene) is the amount of time I spend talking about lyrical
content. As many of us know, one of the most frequent criticisms of jamband
music is that it is in want of a soul — that the music jambands create is,
by and large, frivolous surface play and that it lacks the emotional
resonance and sincere human connection necessary for music (and art in
general) to sustain cultural value long after its production. And, more
often than not, critics gravitate to the lyrics to support this point: the
absurdist musings of early Phish; the maudlin, New-Age uplift of String
Cheese Incident; and the adolescent stoner-dude insights of the Disco
Biscuits.

But I think that these critics are generally missing the point; lyrics in
the jamband world play a role similar to that of musicality in the
contemporary Christian music scene: necessary but by no means the focal
point for (artistic) expression. Some song structures just need
lyrics in order to sound "whole." Lyrics add an entirely distinct mode of
discourse to musical communication, and they can either act as one
instrument, equal among many (as I see them doing, for the most part, in the
jamband scene), or they can function as the dominant discursive mode (which
is the case in much of popular music). One approach is not inherently
better than the other, and neither are superior (or inferior) to music
lacking lyrics altogether.

But knowing when lyrics work in a song (and when they don’t) is a crucial
skill for musicians, and it’s a skill that’s largely lacking on Hairy Apes
BMX’s new CD, Beautiful Seizure. Led by Mike Dillon and Brad Houser
(Critters Buggin), the Hairy Apes are a skilled bunch whose music can be
situated in the Zappa cubicle of the jamband workplace. Dillon’s vibraphone
is the most distinct flavor in their stylistic mix, and perhaps because of
this, it’s also the most prominent. Their music is often grounded in dark
funk-jazz (recalling MMW on more than one occasion) with a penchant for
changes in time signatures and tempo, and in this context the vibes have a
tendency to warp the darkness, resulting in what sounds like demented circus
music. But there’s a kitsch factor in this as well, owing to the absurd
lyrics and titles such as "Redneck Julius Caesar" and "Tofu and Thai Food."

What makes the kitschy lyrics unsuccessful is the way in which the Hairy
Apes force them upon songs that just don’t need them. Listening to the
aforementioned "Caesar," which fluctuates musically between the subtle and
the blunt, becomes a grating experience, thanks to its growling two-line
refrain: "Redneck Julius Caesar, some will call him your leader." "Phone
Numbers" and "Scared Little Men" likewise insert talky lyrics (not much
actual singing for the Hairy Apes) to grooves that are doing just fine
without them, though the lyrics don’t interfere with the songs to the degree
of "RJC.." "Scared Little Men" (which is a lackadaisically-delivered tirade
against our current administration) brings to mind SCI’s "Galactic," a song
that also feels like a fully-developed instrumental that had lyrics added to
it almost as an afterthought.

But despite the drastically problematic use of lyrics in Beautiful
Seizure, the album somehow manages to avoid collapsing underneath the
weight of this flaw, thanks to the musicality of the BMX-riding Apes. On
the disc’s best moments – "Monk Meets Fela," "Tortoise in a Can" and
"Hearing Aid" – the band’s playful demeanor and their ability to weave
fluidly between and through genres is so convincingly captured that even the
tritest, most out-of-place lyrics couldnt thwart the momentary enjoyment
that these songs intend to bring. But hopefully, the next time around, the
Hairy Apes BMX won’t put that assertion to the test.

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