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Oysterhead - The Grand Pecking Order CD (album) cover




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3.67 | 29 ratings

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4 stars This review is long, but if you have any interest in Les Claypool, Trey Anastasio, Stewart Copeland, or just in a new legend emerging on the progressive landscape, you should take the time to read this.

Oysterhead consists of Trey Anastasio (Phish), Les Claypool (Primus), and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, and the only reason I bought this album was to hear what Copeland would sound like after fifteen years or so away from playing in a legitimate band (I think he’s been mostly doing movie soundtracks and stuff like that since he left the Police).

Pause and form a mental picture of what you think a band with these three guys should look and sound like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably off-base. Having suffered through listening to the results of contrived lineups of numerous “all-star” bands over the years, I actually expected this album to be an over-hyped flop, and after the first listen that was my initial impression, and I found myself wishing that the band’s web site had a return policy.

After a few more listens though, this album has really grown on me. There are a couple of small turds in the mix, to be sure, but overall this is a collection of songs that you can play many times and find something new almost every time. And by the way, Copeland’s drumming hasn’t lost anything in the time he’s been away. He pretty much lives above the rim the whole album, with an almost indulgent use of snares, and of what must be some pretty interesting-looking cymbals, judging from some of the funky sounds he’s coaxing out of them.

The lyrics are a mixed-bag, ranging from socially conscious to just plain silly, which isn’t surprising considering Anastasio and Claypool’s histories with their respective bands. There is a very definite aura of control by Claypool throughout, with most of the tracks having at least a hint of a Primus feel to them. But there is a bit more structure and discipline to the music than you’ll find on albums like Pork Soda or Rhinoplasty. I suppose this is largely attributable to Anastasio’s considerable skill at arranging the music, and Copeland’s well-honed commercial sensibilities. Finally, most of the songs have some degree of improvisational jamming to them, and clearly the Phish influence is shining through – I don’t think either the Police or Primus is particularly known for their spontaneity in the studio.

Clearly this band was made to be live on stage though, and their web site is pretty liberally sprinkled with free concert videos for fans to download. There is also a lengthy policy statement explaining how fans can tape live concerts for their own benefit, and even post their recordings for free distribution to other fans. I have in fact downloaded several such recordings from various amateur fan sites (placed there with the full consent of the band, I will point out!), and most of these songs sound even better live than they do on the album. So if you’re interested in the musical styles of any of these three artists, you should think of Grand Pecking Order as a solid sampler of what they will sound like live (although to my knowledge they haven’t really played live much since the supporting tour for this album back in 2001).

“Little Faces” starts off with a funky rhythm between Claypool’s bass and Copeland’s drums that has the effect of sounding like a motorcycle or poorly muffled racing engine revving up. It’s a pretty creative way to open the album, and gives way eventually into a rather extended jam that has a strong Phish feel to it. I wish I had more experience listening to both Phish and especially Primus because both Anastasio and Claypool provide vocals but they are kind of hard to tell apart.

In “Oz is Ever Floating” Claypool lays down some funky blues-influenced licks that are supported with a driving staccato beat from Copeland. I can’t tell if Claypool is using a voice box or is just synching his vocals perfectly to Anastasio’s guitar, but the effect is quite original.

“Mr. Oysterhead” is a song that is totally made to be played live. This one actually reminds me of some of the funkier early stuff the Gap Band did, except that the vocals are almost like the Beastie Boys at times. This one could easily be drawn out to eight or ten minutes in a live setting and still hold the interest of listeners.

(Billy Came Back from Vietnam) a “Shadow of a Man” has one of the few serious topics on the album. It’s a song about a man returning from Vietnam with some mental and social adjustment issues, apparently one of many victims of Agent Orange exposure. This is a reference to a rather dated social issue, but the change of tempo shows the range this group is capable of. Copeland throws in some unusual percussion that has a bit of an Oriental feel to it, and Anastasio’s guitar has kind of an ‘Apocalypse Now’ sound that sets the mood well.

I’m not sure what the point is in “Radon Balloon”, maybe some sort of nuclear reference or something. This is a rather subdued song, with Anastasio actually switching to an acoustic guitar.

Claypool’s bass sounds like he’s slapping wet noodles on “Army’s on Ecstasy”, a sarcastic dig at the mental state of some of our men and women in uniform (this is kind of a sacred-cow subject today, but keep in mind the song was written in early 2001). The vocals here are actually a bit annoying at times, especially Claypool’s ‘voice-in-a- can’ sound that reminds me of some of Klaatu’s early stuff.

I think “Rubberneck Lions” is just a bunch of pointless babbling thrown together with most of the lyrics appearing to be chosen simply because they rhyme. Anastasio wanders about with some funky licks that sound as if they were improvised in the studio. Overall this would have been just as good as an instrumental, and whoever is singing the harmony sounds a lot like Gordon Gano from Violent Femmes.

“Polka Dot Rose” is a darker kind of chant that I didn’t really get the point of, but Claypool and Copeland do a nice job of laying down a toe-tapping tempo at least.

“Birthday Boys” is an Anastasio tune, and he brings out an acoustic guitar again for this one. I gather this song is about a chick named Gina who is a bit of a tease, although I could certainly have that wrong.

I’m pretty sure “Wield the Spade” is a dig at world leaders like GW who assume their powers to be unlimited. The timing here is interesting. Oysterhead was scheduled to kick off their tour supporting the album on September 15, 2001, and their first few shows were canceled after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Although the voice on this song sounds remarkably like Al Gore, the lyrics seem almost prophetically aimed as a reference to the abuses of power the current American president has been accused post-September 11th. Kind of creepy listening to this song knowing it was written before the unfolding of the past five years’ political and social events.

The lyrics from “Pseudo Suicide” are Claypool’s, and the real-life references wrapped around the encore “’cause there ain’t no cure for suicide” undoubtedly have some sort of hidden meaning that escapes me, but probably means something to those who know him. He and Copeland seem especially inspired on this one, with a driving rhythm that is more upbeat than anywhere else on the album.

“Grand Pecking Order” is just a flat-out disgruntled-member-of-the-human-race rant. You just gotta’ love these lyrics:

“In the grand pecking order, where is it you lie? are you the tall hog at the trough, Or a piglet in the sty? On the grand ladder of life, are you near the highest rung? Or somewhere near bottom with your nose in hairy bung. And so you sniff it with a smile on your face, for to pout about would only bring disgrace – to the Grand Pecking Order”.

“Owner of the World”, I guess, is about a corporate and social climber who has reached his zenith and is now just another average Joe:

“He used to own the world, he used to be the one. Like hundred hungry dogs in heat, on cinnabar and rum; ground and sifted and washed it, dried it in the sun. But his heart just wouldn't buy it and his feet began to run. He used to be the Owner of the World, but now he's just another man, who used to be the Owner of the World”.

Anastasio closes out this last track with some very tasty licks that dance around Copeland’s simple but fast-moving beat. This is a short but sweet tune that left me expecting more after the album ended, even after I originally didn’t think the album was even worth keeping.

Like I said at the beginning, that’s what a few listens to this album will do – get you hooked and eventually you’ll probably even sing the praises of this innovative and energetic work by three well-established musical geniuses who somehow managed to break with the traditional mold of “all-star” lineups that either take themselves too seriously, or try to bite off more than they can chew. Oysterhead seems to be not only keeping their egos and ambitions in check on the album; they actually seem to be having fun doing it.

If you have a chance to pick this one up, consider it a priority – this is a record you will still be playing from time to time even years from now. If I ever get a chance to see these guys live, I will undoubtedly consider it the highlight of my social calendar for that year.

Oysterhead and Grand Pecking Order are real gems whose real genius, in the grand tradition of much of the progressive genre, will probably not be fully appreciated for many years to come.


ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |


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