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Guest – Critters BugginHost – Critters BugginMonkeypot Merganzer – Critters BugginBumpa – Critters Buggin

Kufala Recordings 0082

Kufala Recordings 0083

Kufala Recordings 0084

Kufala Recordings 0085

I first encountered what is commonly known as "Skerik" in 2001, by accident. In other words, I came for the bass: Les Claypool had come to my town and, having just discovered the then-defunct Primus, I was eager to make his acquaintance ("make his acquaintance" = catch the Frog Brigade at Roseland Ballroom, NYC).

And, following a lackluster set by Drums and Tuba, the pleasure was all mine. Colonel Claypool killed all night; Jay Lane rocked and Eenor was very, very tall (and talented, too).

But all eyes (all of my eyes, anyway) were on the tenor man.

He was so unusual. When he wasn't playing, he would wave his arms wildly, stomp his feet and snarl and grunt like some kind of animal. And when he played… oh man. He could squawk like Marshall Allen but, when he wanted to, he could sound like Sonny Rollins. And he always looked so intense (and more than just a little crazy).

So who was this guy? I did some research, also by accident. When I got into Charlie Hunter, I picked up Garage A Trois' Emphasizer; lo and behold, Skerik was all over that shite. And when I came across a record by The Clinton Administration, an impromptu collective of cats including keys-whiz Robert Walter and funky drummer (yes, the funky drummer) Clyde Stubblefield, I was stoked — Skerik was all over that, too.

Then, in 2003, Ropeadope unleashed Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet upon a suspecting community of record-buyers (i.e. me), and my greatest fears were confirmed.

I had stumbled across a truly rockin' artist.

This guy was for real. His records were for real, and they were real good. So when Stampede came out late last year, I was first in line to grab a copy. I mean, Skerik was on it, and if it was half as good as last summer’s "Duo Buggin" boat "cruise," I was more than down for this brand new disc.

"But wait," I thought. "Who the hell are Critters Buggin?"

Formed in Seattle in 1993, the Critters crew has always featured Skerik, bassist Brad Houser and drummer Matt Chamberlain. Both Houser and Chamberlain did time in the New Bohemians ("What I Am" anyone?) and Chamberlain has played with a few, choice others (Tori Amos, Elton John, Bowie and Pearl Jam). Percussionist John Bush, also of the New Bohemians, was around for their first album, and Mike Dillon (Frog Brigade, Garage A Trois, KDTU, Hairy Apes BMX, everyone?) signed up sometime in 1998, completing the Critters as we know them today.

But I didn't know all that in September. All I knew was Stampede; I knew, after one listen, that the Critters had put out a record of epic proportions and, if I was unable to hear more from the Critters, I might become seriously ill.

Lucky for me, and my health, the kind dudes and dudettes at Kufala (a term borrowed from an unidentified African dialect, meaning "be happy") have re-released the Critters' first four albums, as they have been long out of print. Each record is chock full of the strange, aggressive tribal-funk we've all come to expect from the Critters; new, "collectable" artwork accompanies each set of original liner notes (you might want to buy Host just for the liners).

But let's start with 1994's Guest, the Critters’ debut for Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s Loosegroove Records (and, arguably, their best album for the label). "Shag" and "Kickstand Hog" kick things off in typical Critters fashion: loud, dark and funky. The Houser/Chamberlain rhythm section are attached at the hip here and Skerik (billed as "Nalgas Sin Carne," Spanish for "Buttocks Without Meat") soars above it all with piercing, legato lines. As on many Critters songs, spoken-word ramblings are dubbed over "Shag."

"I am what I am, and that's all I am," preaches Prophet Omega.

The record's best tunes, however, are not the noisy, jazz/rock jams that comprise most of the Critters' early catalogue. The real highlights here are the dreamy "Critters Theme," a textural lullaby anchored by Houser's descending bass line, and "Fretless Nostril," a slow, funky, Middle-Eastern dirge.

The album concludes, oddly enough, with "Naked Truth," a Prince-ish piano jam featuring vocals by Shawn Smith, and a tune entitled "Los Lobos" (no, it doesn't sound like Los Lobos). The liner notes reveal that Skerik, err Nalgas, played guitar and "saxitar" on this album and, besides drums, Chamberlain played "backflips" and "waffles."

The implementation of exotic instruments continued on 1996's Host. Chamberlain played "idiot guitar" and "screaming," Houser played "screaming," too, and "Bubba Rabozo" (yes, Skerik) played "dual mute mollusks" and "ass and nipple chops."

Just from the liners, you could tell that this was going to be a good album. Highlights here are the damn-funky "Mullet Cut," the quiet, bassy "Red Eyed Wonder," and the mellow "Nahmani."

The bonus song sews up Host in a silent way. Nearly devoid of music, the track’s male narrator offers the listener phrases to repeat, so that the listener might find slumber.

"Restful sleep is good for me," he says. "And I go to sleep. Easily."

But, no matter what the dude tells you, don't sleep on 1998's Monkeypot Merganzer (a "merganser," correctly spelled, is a type of duck; a monkeypot is… well, a monkeypot?). The least accessible of the lot, Monkeypot has its moments, too.

"Space Rant" combines a cool spoken-word piece about life on a far away planet with a subtle funk groove (MMW fans, think "Your Name Is Snake Anthony"); the eerie "AIDS" could be the score to a film about the end of the world in all its horn-y melancholia. Save for a few key tracks, Monkeypot is a hard listen; perhaps "Spaceboy," "B.H.," and "Bubba" wanted it that way.

Bumpa, however, was a return to the usual Critters fare. The full quartet (featuring Dillon) turned this one out in 1998 and it was their most consistent effort since Guest. The distorted funk of "Brozo The Clown" and the intense, keyboard-heavy electronica of "Raimondi" should entice casual listeners and diehards alike.

Keep in mind: none of these albums are an easy listen and none of them, really, are as good as Stampede (a masterpiece). However, Guest, Host, Monkeypot and Bumpa are records that should appeal to any serious appreciator: they’re full of honest, interesting music.

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