Fresh Cow Pie reviews Monkeypuzzle
Fresh Cow Pie, Winter/Spring 1999
Reviews: Wayne F. Tackabury
Fresh Cow Pie reviews have occasionally lamented the difficulty in being objective when the reviewee/artist involved is someone you know and like personally, and the difficulty is compounded for me when the band is Baby Ray. They have consistently impressed me over the last several years in their Boston performances with their brand of smart-aleck art-pop that the kids used to call "angular" and "quirky". Still, and even with hight expectations to start, I think it's hard not to crow pretty hard about how good Baby Ray's debut full-length is.
What is most interesting is that as tracked, the initial songs here seem to define a deceptively limited perimiter of what Baby Ray's sound is -- pretzel-shaped and flawlessly executed funky-artsy raveups, with enough songwriting craftsmanship to impress an Andy Partridge and enough irreverence to elicit a Frank Zappa's attention and respect. Of all historical references to conjure to describe this side of BR's sound, try a punked out version of 80's Brit-pop band The Fixx. Baby Ray vocalist Erich Groat bears an odd sonic similarity to (in a more otherworldly way) and has a similar range of Cy Cumin, and the consistent stereo pan of the gleaming transistorized metal funk guitar work from Groat and Ken Lafler brings Jamie West-Oram to mind.
These songs are densely packed with words, hooks, baubles, and tricks. The deliberately punk-snotty stance of many of Groat's lyrics ("makes all the covers of my magazines for dirty old men and shitfaced teens/drives them to liquors and nocotines/she's my fucking girl/show me a pusher") belies the precision of how they are executed. Put simply, as good as it is, it's clearly more clever than soulful. Maybe even too self-indulgently clever for it's own good at times.
Then something unexpected and wonderful happens. A whole new more self-assured and straightforward direction appears out of the middle of the recording. While never losing his sense of challenge, Groat seems to assume a comfortably intimate stance with a simpler sound. Songs like "Thing Called Springtime" and "Big Sun's A-Comin'" (a piece of stunning circular beauty, easily the standout on Monkeypuzzle) evoke a feel of a more psychedelic version of the sound XTC put into "Skylarking", or perhaps a more fully realized adaptation of "Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia"-era Guided By Voices.
Even for a bit of resulting unevenness, Monkeypuzzle is a great record -- eclipsed only marginally by Tripping Daisy's Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb as the best national debut of 1998. It's been quite some time since Boston has had a musical export this consistent and thoughtful.