When guitarist Paul Leary suddenly reappeared contributing guitar performances to The Melvins’ twentieth album, Hold It In, as well as contributing some songwriting to the project about six years ago, it felt like a shocking development. Not that Leary had vanished or retired or anything, the guitarist was simply busy doing other things; he developed a band or two of his own (Honky was great) as well as doing production work – so his return to active duty with Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover and fellow Butthole Surfers alumnus Jeff Pinkus felt special and really exciting. Because it did feel special and exciting while it was happening, the disappointment which came with the fact that the guitarist’s association with The Melvins proved to be short-lived was pretty severe. Really, The Melvins’ membership has resembled a revolving door for years so getting truly upset that such a pattern endured was pretty unreasonable; it just would have been satisfying to see the working relationship last a little longer than it did.
After that short blast of activity, the Leary world seemed to grow silent again – which was a little disconcerting. Paul Leary is a great producer, after all, but even notifications of that activity seemed to quiet. That lull now has an explanation: perhaps while working with The Melvins, Paul Leary got the songwriting taste back in his mouth and now, for the first time since 1991 (when the guitarist released his first solo outing, The History Of Dogs on Rough Trade), the guitarist has released a new solo album, Born Stupid.
As soon as Born Stupid‘s title track swaggers out to open the album, all of the weirdness which used to color a Butthole Surfers record leaps out before listeners like the single most vivid acid flashback on record (no pun intended), but tempered in a manner which ignores the terrifying stray sparks of DIY chaos the Surfers were known for. There, a square-jawed, bow-legged C&W guitar riff simmers along complete with drums of the same sort – and made more than a little surreal by the sighing, “wide open spaces” vibes conjured by the female backup vocal which blows along in the background. This is, of course, precisely the sort of thing that fans expect of Leary so they’ll have no difficulty at all inhabiting the place where Born Stupid starts. In fact, hearing it come along the way it does is incredibly satisfying because it illustrates that the weirdness hasn’t left the guitarist; in that regard, hearing Leary’s digitally-manipulated vocal (which runs with the song from top to bottom) implies a return to a brand of “strange” that Butthole Surfers fans will recognize immediately and gravitate toward happily.
The going gets no less bizarre as “Do You Like To Eat A Cow” follows “Born Stupid” with more Disney-fied angling (the song opens with the sound of a music box playing “When You Wish Upon A Star,” which dovetails into a delerious ditty which sounds like the seven dwarfs walking around a barnyard, singing about the animals they see) as well as illustrating that Leary’s ability to make something cute or pleasing sound terrifying and wrong hasn’t faded with time before making claims about sugar being a gateway drug (while sounding like a merry go-round on acid! Yeah!).
After the first three songs, listeners (particularly longtime Butthole Surfers fans) may feel like they’ve got Paul Leary’s number. “Alright,” they may say, “we get it. It’s a little strange, but not a big deal.” No big deal indeed – except that immediately after “Sugar Is A Gateway Drug” ends, “What Are You Gonna Do” begins – and that’s when Born Stupid falls down a flawless, terrifying and fantastic rabbit hole.
Now, to be fair, “What Are You Gonna Do” starts slow. With disquieting, Casio-esque keys, Leary simultaneously creates a sound similar to the one listeners may remember from when Alice fell down the animated rabbit hole in Disney’s Alice In Wonderland before it hits rock bottom, re-achieves the guitar tone the guitarist employed on “Who Was In My Room Last Night” and employs a digitally-effect on his voice to welcome listeners to Hell. For those who are familiar with Leary’s work, the song will play as sublime; on one hand, it could easily have fit in well with the more metallic side of The Melvins, but it also flashes around to the more gleefully malicious side of the Butthole Surfers’ songbook. Best of all, the stomping, simple drumming and parenthetical bass stabs (which don’t exactly commit to pitch) drive the song along at a surprisingly brisk pace so that it doesn’t languish or get boring.
As the album progresses, Leary does include a few tracks from the Butthole Surfers songbook which have been re-thought and re-formatted to satisfy the guitarist’s fan base (“The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave,” “Gary Floyd” and “The Adventures of Pee Pee the Sailor” all appear – sort of), which actually illustrates that a shocking amount of musicianship is possible to include in the songs, in the right hands; the mildly carnival-esque vibes of “The Shah Revisited” and “Pee Pee the Sailor Revisited” are both pretty much exactly what every fan would expect, but the lush acoustic performance presented upon the normally dark and violent “Gary Floyd” is strikingly beautiful and illustrates just how affecting Leary’s voice can be, in the right context.
Of course, those listeners who aren’t particularly well-versed in the Butthole Surfers’ catalogue will likely be far less affected by them here, but they do also have the added benefit of throwing some sweet goofiness and even (gasp) levity to the proceedings, which breaks them up nicely and really throws some added light on the new songs included during the second half of the CD. “Mohawk Town” qualifies as a surprisingly excellent country “Story of” song which features some fantastic Southwest acoustic strumming (and some pitch-shifted vocals, of course) while it’s easy to imagine that “Throw Away Freely” began life as a castoff Butthole Surfers track – with its soaring, high wire histrionics. There’s no possible way to fathom where the thoroughly bizarre instrumental mock-up which is “Gold Cap” came from or what its intended purpose might have been but, again, it arrives as a good break between other movements which causes those other songs to shine that much more brightly, as a result.
As may be illustrated by the fact that this review eventually stops following the songs on Born Stupid in sequence, it’s very, very easy to get lost in it as one listens to the album. There are definitely a lot of trapdoors and unusual turns throughout the runtime to facilitate that but, when the CD ends, listeners will find they’re energized; like any trip through a good house of mirrors, those who make it through Born Stupid will want to do it again, as fast as they can. It might sound stupid [cue rim shot], but Born Stupid is an underground masterstroke. [Bill Adams]
Born Stupid is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.