Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December 30: The Les Claypool Frog Brigade, "Purple Onion"

Artist: The Les Claypool Frog Bridage
Album: Purple Onion
Year: 2002
Label: Prawn Song

With Primus on an indefinite hiatus, and Oysterhead behind him, Les Claypool found himself without a band in early 2002. Looking to remedy this situation, Claypool pulled together some of the finest musicians in the land, and perhaps due to his recent work with the more "jam-oriented" Oysterhead, he and his band quickly became a fixture within the "jam band" scene. Though Primus was certainly known for their musical expertise, it was this later band, combined with Claypool's signature quirkiness that made them one of the most exciting and popular bands of the "Phishless" jam community. It was also with his new band, initially dubbed "Colonel Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade," where Claypool composed some of his finest post-Primus music, and it also represents some of the most complex and "complete" songs on his career. It is during his work with The Frog Brigade that one can hear the power and depth of his music finally catching up with his legendary songwriting, and the live performances of this era were unquestionably some of the most stunning of Claypool's career. Backed by one of the most impressive and talented bands of the day, the group released a pair of live records before unleashing their phenomenal studio debut, the absolutely magnificent 2002 album, Purple Onion.

One of the most amazing aspects of Purple Onion is the level of subtleties that lace nearly every corner of the album. From small musical touches to the subtexts of the lyrics, in every way, this is one of Claypool's deepest bodies of work. The album title, which is clearly a nod to the legendary San Francisco club, recalls a few of the venues most famous moments, as Claypool even goes so far as name dropping some guy named Bob Zimmerman. Similarly, many of the songs on the record are clearly of a personal nature, as Claypool pays tribute to a local restaurant on "D's Diner," as well as an ode to the infamous UC Berkley dorm, "Barrington Hall." Each track on the album has a very unique feel, as it is clear that Claypool is pulling out all the stops and with this backing band, he sees no boundaries to the musical possibilities. This is perhaps no more clear than on the track that is named after what is easily one of the most amazing "musical inventions" in history, Claypool's homemade "Whamola." The instrument, which is clearly a direct decedent of the washtub bass, is little more than a single bass string on a stick with a handle at the top to adjust the pitch. Played by slapping the string with a drum stick, the Whamola produces a tone like nothing else, and Claypool proves to be a master of the instrument, as the track is one of the most uniquely exciting songs in decades. "Whamola" is taken to an almost untouchable level by the absolutely mind-blowing performance that is given not only by Claypool, but his backing also use this track band prove both their worth and might.

While in many ways, the era of the "backing band" had ended decades earlier, the fact of the matter is, with the number of "side projects" that Les Claypool has had over the years, The Frog Brigade perfectly fits the term. The one constant through nearly all of Claypool's projects over the years is drummer Jay Lane, who was one of the founders of Primus, and also played in Sausage, as well as groups like Rat Dog and The Charlie Hunter Trio. Unquestionably one of the finest drummers of his generation, Lane has rarely sounded as amazing as he does throughout Purple Onion. One of the key components to this "new" sound to Claypool's music is the presence of a second percussionist, the equally legendary Mike Dillon. Playing everything from a second drum kit to marimba to vibraphone, it is largely due to Dillon's performances that the songs gain the stunning amount of depth. Also bringing an amazingly unique sound to the music, as well as serving as one of the finest counterparts that Claypool has ever known, guitarist Eenor possesses one of the most distinctive sounds of his generation. From mind-boggling solos to some of the most crushing chords and riffs of the decade, Eenor easily fills the shoes of Claypool's longtime musical partner, Larry LaLonde. The fact that Claypool was becoming part of the "jam band" scene is further reinforced by the presence of a second guitarist on the song "Buzzards Of Green Hill," journeyman guitar legend, Warren Haynes. A second music icon is also featured throughout the album, and his playing was one of the keys to making both Purple Onion as well as the live shows such an amazing experience. Perhaps best known for his work with the band Galactic, saxophone master Skerik, has rarely sounded as fantastic as he does on this record, and the interplay between him and Claypool is one of the most stunning sounds ever captured on tape. Though there are a number of other guest musicians, it is this core group that help to give Claypool's songs life, and they are without question the most musically adventurous project that Claypool ever created.

When writers look back on the music scene of the 1980's and 1990's, there is little doubt that one of the key names that will be brought up again and again will be that of Les Claypool. Without question, Claypool stands as the most innovative and musically fearless player of his generation, and there has simply never been another musician quite like him. Along with his absolutely stunning performances on bass, Purple Onion features some of Claypool's most well written and delivered lyrics of his career. While the only thing that may be as instantly recognizable as his bass playing may be his voice, Claypool takes Purple Onion to make some of his work with Primus seem almost "traditional" in sound. With some of the vocals almost sounding sinister in nature, and others presenting his endearing, joyfully strange sound, Claypool runs the vocal gamut on the album. Songs like "Long In The Tooth" and "D's Diner" brilliantly highlight the lighter side of Claypool's character, as the songs are about as purely "fun" as one will find anywhere. However, throughout Purple Onion, Claypool presents some of his deepest and most socially aware and controversial lyrics of his career. The two-part songs of "David Makalaster" which bookmark the bulk of the record follow the tale of a newscaster turned sensationalist reporter, Claypool perfectly captures the "post-9/11" mindset of a large portion of U.S. society. The burning critique on that moment in history has perhaps never been better captured then when Claypool brilliantly quips, "...vengeance is back in style." Claypool continues the onslaught on the blind ignorance in society with one of the most harsh, yet accurate indictments of prejudice on the song "Ding Dang." The song itself would have fit in perfectly in the repertoire of Sly & The Family Stone, and Claypool cuts society no slack at all as he presents what may very well be the finest lyric he ever composed. Backed by a group that is able to follow and push Claypool to limits he never knew, Purple Onion finds Les Claypool at his finest, and from the music to the lyrics, the album stands as a testament to how much he has grown as a musician and solidifies his reputation as one of the most talented players and writers of his generation.

In an era when music was already disgustingly artificial and frustratingly tame and predictable, Les Claypool unleashed what may very well be his most musically exciting and innovative record of his career in the form of Purple Onion. Surrounded by some of the most talented musicians on the planet, the group tears through a dozen new Claypool compositions, and the songs never fail to be stunningly powerful in every aspect. The addition of the percussive expertise of Mike Dillon proves to be one of the key elements in Claypool taking his sound to "the next level," and it also provides a great deal of diversity in the styles that are presented throughout the record. With Eenor providing all the guitar mastery that Claypool could ever need, the chemistry between the two is clear, and they play off one another in brilliant fashion on every track. Guest players ranging from Haynes to bassist Norwood Fisher (Fishbone) to the sitar of Gabby La La help to make Purple Onion one of the most musically diverse and exciting releases of the decade, and Claypool's ability to weave them all into a single, cohesive sound serves as a testament to the fact that he has clearly reached full musical maturity. Every song on Purple Onion is a uniquely exciting musical experience, and much like his work with Oysterhead, it is almost frustrating that the group never released another studio record. Without question one of the finest projects of Les Claypool's career, his release with The Frog Brigade, 2002's Purple Onion, stands not only as one of the most original and extraordinary albums of the decade, but by far one of the greatest records in the overall history of recorded music.

Standout tracks: "Buzzards Of Green Hill," "Whamola," and "D's Diner."

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