Of Whales and Woe – Les Claypool
Les Claypool’s musical direction has always been one that seems to impulsively veer down dirt roads for sight-seeing adventures while the easier paved roads to tested commercial success are ignored (even if he’s still found success along the way). This reviewer has always appreciated the sometimes Primus leader's forethought and drive to craft original sounding music — he plays a bass guitar like no one else — as a foundation for shadowy Mother-Goose-for-adults stories. While his previous extra-Primus projects (Frog Brigade, C2B3, Oysterhead, and on) have shouldered the weight of having Primus’ bassist in their lineup, they’ve all managed to avoid cranking out more of the same and landed themselves into musical slots all their own.
On Of Whales and Woe, Claypool uses familiar band mates — saxophonist Skerik, percussionist Mike Dillon, and sitarist/theraminist Gabby La La — throughout, but the album is really all his own this time, and the first released solely under the name "Les Claypool." Claypool plays bass, guitar, sings and plays percussion on every song, utilizing his friends only when and where their expertise becomes a valuable and proper choice. This album is such a personal project for Claypool that he brings in his children to play (Cage Claypool on percussion and Lena Claypool on marimba) on the first track (“Back off Turkey”) and later in the album pulls out a homemade bass banjo to sing a goofy foot stomping song (“Iowan Gal”) about his wife. Claypool is the only constant on Of Whales and Woe.
Claypool’s non-blood family starts popping up on the second track (“One Better”), filling the non-Claypool airspace with Skerik on random outbursts of tenor sax melody and Mike Dillon on a steadier marimba backing beat. Skerik’s baritone sax locks in a more pronounced role on “Lust Stings,” a song about the pains of lust come to fruition. Just to point out Claypool’s poetic skills (rich imagery abounds), here’s a line from the aforementioned track: “Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. I’m gonna eat me some worms, I’m gonna eat me some worms. I got the herpes on my pecker. Sometimes it itches and burns. I’m gonna eat me some worms.” This man’s a poet of the ages for certain.
The title track unleashes Gabby La La — somewhat of a Claypool project herself — for her first appearance on the CD. Rather than playing her sitar (her standard instrument) she pushes an eerie whale song out of a theremin. Next up, though, “Vernon the Company Man” unsheathes her sitar for some busy-bee fingering (appropriate for a song about a company man) around Dillon’s sedate tabla patterns.
“Robot Chicken” is an instrumental (39 seconds short with Claypool on various instruments and chicken sounds), featured on Seth Green’s Cartoon Network series. If you aren’t paying attention, it’s easy to miss. Gabby La La rocks her sitar on “Filipino Ray,” a song about a guitar player who’d “likely as not give you the shirt off his back all over bourbon and coke.” “Off White Guilt” calls the whole team in for a final huddle. Claypool and Dillon’s bass and percussion canvas is dark and industrial sounding — like a construction site's chaos with rhythm — and Skerik’s grieving sax, alongside Gabby La La’s pained sitar, caps the mood.
Of Whales and Woe might not sell as many copies as some of Claypool’s other side projects (then again, it might), but that doesn’t seem to be Claypool’s drive. He seems to be making the music he enjoys. which has always been his style, and whoever wants to come along for a listen is welcome to attempt the journey. Far from a disappointing side project, it’s nice to have Of Whales and Woe in the personal collection. Here’s to another example of one should be down for any trip to sea when Mr. Claypool is at the helm.