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Published: 2006/05/14
by Jesse Jarnow

self titled – Carneyball Johnson

Akron Cracker 602

"Jazz isn’t dead," Frank Zappa famously said in 1974, "it just smells funny." More than a quarter-century later, jazz still isn’t dead ("think I’ll go for a walk!"), but it’s very well possible that people have grown accustomed the stench. Nobody bothered to tell Carneyball Johnson, though. Completely unfashionable by the standards of contemporary jazz, the Johnsons neither adhere to the impure purist’s songbook of Nirvana and ABBA and other pop covers, nor the fuck-it-all avant-gardism of the electro-acoustic nu-wave. Instead, Carneyball Johnson are a bunch of ’60s-leaning music dorks and they’ll play what they want, fuck you very much.

Led by Ralph Carney, hornman-on-call to Tom Waits, the quartet plops down easily into Frank Zappa’s "Willie the Pimp" (labeled "Willie vs. the Pimp") as if it were a standard they’d played their whole lives, in wedding bands and at random Friday night pick-up gigs — which it very well could be. Much of the disc proceeds in as such. There is material from outsider jazz (Sun Ra’s "Interstellar Low Ways/Watusa" and Thelonius Monk’s "Jackie-ing"), bloke-rock (The Yardbirds’ "Over, Under, Sideways, Down" and Cream’s "White Room"), and Jamaican ska (Desmond Dekker’s "Intensified Festival ’68" and Sir Lord Comic’s "Ska-ing West").

Everything, of course, has its own twist. "Willie the Pimp" gets a bizarre spoken interlude about "the spirit wolf," "Over, Under, Sideways, Down" is a swingingly demented seven-minute freak-out. Some numbers turn up the requisite funk a little bit too high (the rolling "Jackie-ing," for example), but Carney’s oddball horns at least give something to latch onto. "White Room" (labeled "(off)White Room") serves the song with pastoral psychedelia before barreling into an almost-generic clav-groove that implodes before it can sound bland.

Carneyball Johnson is playful and bubbly, though not atmospheric enough to be mysterious. The album is fun, though, and that seems to be its primary reason for existence. It is also utterly unpretentious. Where many jazz musicians use their albums to make arguments about the state of jazz ("no, in fact we smell quite fetching!"), Carneyball Johnson are content to be themselves. They dig Monk and Ra, and they also dig Zappa and the Aces. There’s no problem with that of course, but there’s very little artistic tension, either. Carneyball Johnson don’t seem particularly worried, though. There’s no problem with that, either.

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