Thursday, July 22, 2010

July 22: Primus, "Tommy The Cat"

Artist: Primus
Song: "Tommy The Cat"
Album: Sailing The Seas Of Cheese
Year: 1991

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While many fusions of musical styles pack a good punch, there are few that are more consistently exciting than when one smashes some groovy funk head on into aggressive punk rock.  There is an energy inherent in both of these styles on their own, but when they are combined, it often results in the most dizzying, yet positive energy one can find anywhere in recorded history.  Bands like Living Colour,  (early) Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Fishbone found fame with this formula, yet there was one band that took the style and injected a steady dose of "weird" into the mix, making them one of the most brilliantly unique bands in history.  Constantly pushing the envelope on what could be done musically, as well as recording some of the heaviest and funkiest songs in history, there has simply never been another band that packed a similar punch to Primus.  From the inception of the band, the music has always been top notch, yet the varied, but consistently unique subject matters and overall moods have almost exclusively been the brain-children of Les Claypool.  Excelling in both the sonic and visual arts through his music, Claypool steered Primus through one of the most celebrated debut albums in history.  Then, in 1991, the band threw down the gauntlet with what remains their most impressive musical achievement in the form of their record, Sailing The Seas Of Cheese.  Showing off their wide range of musical approaches, one can find the musical mastery and pure madness that is Primus within the second single from the record, "Tommy The Cat."

Truth be told, this was actually the second time "Tommy The Cat" was released by Primus, as a live version of the song can be found on their debut EP, 1989's Suck On This.  However, the studio version is understandably far more polished and an overall more complete effort.  The moment the song begins, the amazing stylistic contrasts that make Primus' music so recognizable are instantly present as the deep, slap-grooves from Claypools' bass smash into the ripping guitar chords of Larry LaLonde.  Without question, LaLonde remains one of the most underrated guitarists in history, and it may be because he is often playing "second fiddle" to the stunning performances from Claypool.  On "Tommy The Cat," Claypool completely lets loose with one of his most impressive musical assaults, and it is performances like this that make his playing barely possible to imitate, and certainly unmatched. Rounding out the fantastic music on "Tommy The Cat" is drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, and it is this trio that represents the most impressive and potent lineup in the bands' history.  The three musicians move through the composition in perfect harmony, never letting the energy or oddly dark mood dip for even a moment, as they present one of the strongest grooves to ever grace what in all other aspects appears to be a heavy punk song.  This strange, almost "side-show" style mood that runs throughout their songs is what makes Primus so distinctive, yet one cannot overlook the fact that they also remain three of the most talented musicians of their generation.

While the music is consistent with the rest of the Primus catalog, "Tommy The Cat" features one of the most unique vocals ever recorded.  In nearly every other case, it is Claypool that handles all of the vocal duties, yet on this song, he shares the spotlight with another music legend.  Claypool gives the songs' opening and closing, and in many ways serves in a "narrator" role, while the voice playing "Tommy" is none other than fellow musical oddity, Tom Waits.  The fact that Primus was able to secure Waits for this performance is rather amazing, as even though their first record was exceptional, one can easily make the case that it put them in no better a "position" to land such a voice.  Regardless, Waits fits in perfectly with the mood of the song, and his raspy, somewhat squalid delivery brings the character of "Tommy" to life, and shows the true meaning and spirit behind the song.  Truth be told, it is on songs like "Tommy The Cat" that listeners are treated to the amazing wordsmith that is Les Claypool, as he proves to have one of the wittiest and truly unique pens in music history.  When he throws out word-plays like, "...she came slidin' down the alleyway like butter drippin' off a hot biscuit..." in describing this imagined feline world, the images are so vivid that the cartoon in his head immediately transfers to the listener.  Yet Claypool clearly has as much of a sense of humor as anyone, and he makes a point when he has Waits drop an aside in the line, "...the air was thick with cat calls (no pun intended)..."  The lyrics of Les Claypool fall somewhere between brilliant and completely mad, and the fact that Tom Waits delivers them on "Tommy The Cat" proves to be one of the most strangely perfect pairings in music history.

Whenever the conversation of "greatest bass player" in history begins, Les Claypool must always be one of the first names that arises.  The fact of the matter is, his style is so unique and innovative that none since have come close to copying his style.  Within the confines of Primus, his complete creative spirit was free to go wherever it wanted, as his drummer and guitarist were of equal musical stature, and the band is unquestionably one of the most musically powerful in history.  All of their talents and strange genius reached a musical apex on their second studio album, 1991's Sailing The Seas Of Cheese, and the record remains as jaw-droppingly amazing nearly twenty years later.  Taking the core style and energy of both funk and punk, Primus smashes them together in the most unique and impressive way of all the funk-punk hybrid bands.  Perhaps it is the element of "weird" that comes via Claypool both musically and lyrically, as he represents the meaning of the term "artist" to its fullest extent.  The guitar solos from LaLonde keep the song on the edge of chaos, and the frenzied tempos coming off of Claypool's bass both compliment and contrast it simultaneously.  Dropping one of the most wild and almost deranged vocals (even by Waits' own standards) over-top, there has simply never been another song that can compare to the sonic assault that is Primus' 1991 classic, "Tommy The Cat."

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