Click to hear: “Heaven and Earth”
All my favorite rock performers make me laugh. It’s a trait that in my mind links unlikely comrades such as David Thomas, Mark E. Smith, John Lennon, and Don van Vliet.
Heaven knows, it’s not that there’s nothing to sob about. But each of these performers knows how deep comedy can go. Like Buster Keaton (and Muhammad Ali), they find the comic in the dark and the tragic in the light. They elicit laughter not with funny lyrics, but musically, through inventive playing and exhilarating vocal performances.
On his first two studio albums, Eggbot’s riffs – using both his trusty Farfisa and his heavily treated voice – have tickled me, but on his new album, Father’s Day, he goes further. He seems to be barely fooling around much of the time. On occasion, he’s almost dead serious. And he’s funny.
The album is structured as a triptych, its three parts each tagged with a dopey, skittering drum-and-keyboard riff. There are three songs in the first grouping, a pair of songs in the second, and four songs that conclude the proceedings. The brief keyboard interludes serve to clear the listener’s aural palate. They sound stupid, yet they’re smart and important: they deepen the material they separate.
It takes about one second for Eggbot to establish a sense of great urgency and to demonstrate his command and focus in the opening track, “I’m Dead.” This is a stunning “rocker,” in Eggbot’s parlance, a superheated series of blows to the head, and a signal of Eggbot’s increasingly sure-handed way with the deeply funny and the deeply unfunny. The song’s minimal lyrics are ominous and obscure, a list of strip-searched declarations – “I’m the son of Alger Hiss,” “I’m the baby in the city,” “I’m dead” – delivered with disciplined, pugilistic fervor. Eggbot is burning with some kind of fever. He’s a motherfucker. As a listener, I feel like I’m hanging on (for my life) to the frame of an open car window as Eggbot, at the wheel, hurtles at high speed toward what looks like gray horizon – or maybe it’s a cement wall.
When track one stops on a dime, “Belly Button Window” opens forth like… well, like a pair of legs. The title is copped from a somber Hendrix song that takes the point of view of an unborn child in the birth canal. But Eggbot’s opaque lyrics make it difficult to know exactly where the touch points are between this song and its namesake. Eggbot’s keyboards and vocal effects paint a woozy evocation of secrecy and bad juju. Juxtaposing allusions to Betty Boop, the Sudanese city of Khartoum, and an array of physical sensations (both disturbing and banal), Eggbot hits surprising emotional notes in this track – distress, as well as boredom or exhaustion. Eggbot and drummer Tristan Gallagher play with impressive focus and commitment, as the throaty Farfisa and the dizzy, echoing voices shift among major chords, sevenths and minors to great anthemic effect.
The conclusion of the album’s first section is an insanely catchy garage pumper called “Aswaldo,” a nicely honed version of the odd pop cartoon that Eggbot can apparently write at will. (A more malevolent and slightly more complex take on this type of song, “Telephone Man,” comes near the end of the record.) Before the instrumental breaks, Eggbot declaims satisfying variations of guttural, punkyhunh‘s, and before the second solo, he offers his charming take on the kind of brief, explosive shout/scream the Beatles put to such great use around the time of Beatles VI.
After “Aswaldo” ends and a brief pause, we hear the first of the dinky, shuffling interludes – a good time to say a few more things about the album as a whole. First off, it crosses the finish line at 31:59, and what a gift this is, what an excellent length for a rock recording! More news: there’s nary a bass guitar on this album, but there are lots of six-strings, in addition to the usual suspects: Farfisa, piano, drums, horns, and a spectacular array of vocal effects. Eggbot co-produced the album, and the sound of Father’s Day is fatter, deeper, more textured and richly hued than anything he’s released before. Praise is due to Jim Begley, who recorded the band at The Studio, and to Scott Elson, who contributed additional recording and mixed, mastered, and co-produced the whole affair.
OK, a little more about three other songs, two of which form the core (and second section) of the album. The first of these is a new recording of “Hobo Death Camp,” versions of which appeared previously on the studio album There’s No Denying the Existence of Eggbot and the live album Phalling 4 You. A 5:07 instrumental made from the same four-note boogie riff played over and over and over may seem an odd candidate to represent the marrow of Father’s Day, but there you go.
This track is one of the best examples I can offer as proof of the point that simplicity and repetition can lead the listener to rock’s promised land. On “Hobo,” the playing is as tight and dynamic as you could wish for. The song’s basic riff deepens and swings into a muscular groove. Gallagher’s drumming is especially fabulous here, as he and Eggbot lock into each other in the profound way that comes only with countless hours of playing together. (In the album’s third section, a similarly galvanizing effect occurs in the denser “Hendrix Jazz Jam,” which features a pair of blistering Eggbot guitar tracks.) Eggbot the duo rolls and rolls the “Hobo” riff into a dark soul swirl, and then, around the four-minute mark, there’s a lusty Farfisa solo that takes you up onto the top of the wave. Astonishing! Profound! Dead serious.
Then we get “Natalie,” a grand, melancholy anthem that feels a bit like Eggbot’s “Caroline, No.” A dramatically descending bass line (played on the keyboard), a surprising but simple key change (from F to D and back again), Gallagher’s inspired drumming, and Eggbot’s plaintive, powerful singing create a beautiful wash of regret and pathos. And all this for a television actress, Mindy Cohn, and the character she created in the ’70s sitcom Facts of Life.
Father’s Day is suffused with allusions to babies, mothers and fathers, and,ahem, matters of life and death, and I dare not attempt to pull it all together into a neat package. Frankly, I don’t think there is one. What I can say is that the CD’s final track, “Heaven and Earth,” is essentially the title song of Father’s Day. Writing about the transcendence of great hurt and sorrow, Eggbot engages the ultimate questions from a deeply personal point of view. Naturally, he shapes the song with witty and bold musical allusions (mostly to a variety of Beatles songs and sounds), and the duo pulls it off with inspired singing and playing, including Gallagher’s apparent channeling of Ringo’s solid patterns and fills.
Opening with a cloudy keyboard figure that recalls “I Am the Walrus,” “Heaven and Earth” is constructed from a simple, ethereal, oft-repeated chorus, two wrenching verses, and a sweeping coda in which the Beatlesque elements converge to provide a satisfyingly over-the-top climax. This extended coda starts as a stirring guitar solo (part George Harrison and part Elliot Randall from the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love”) and ends by twisting itself into the Naaaah, na–na–NA-na-na-naaaah‘s of “Hey Jude.”
In its grandeur and emotional nakedness, the song “Heaven and Earth” is unparalleled in Eggbot’s body of work. And the album, Father’s Day, is a treasure, because it captures a special artist maturing right before our ears.
— David Pence
Eggbot’s Father’s Day is now available at Bull Moose Music and Strange Maine.
David Pence Jr is the host of Radio Junk Drawer, heard Wednesdays from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. on community radio station WMPG (90.9 and 104.1 FM; wmpg.org).