Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hey Man... Buy My New Album

I have a million records by George Clinton and his satellites. In 1997, I produced an Orgy (tm) for Harvard's WHRB radio station which consisted of 55 hours of the music of George Clinton. (I staffed all the air myself. At one point a caller complained that I had broken in and talked over a “lovely Michael Hampton guitar solo”; at another point I dozed off and let the sound of the needle on the trailoff groove saturate the air for fifteen minutes) I'm a fan – thus I was wicked psyched when Frances pulled out the first two Clinton “solo” albums, Computer Games and You Shouldn't-Nuf Bit Fish (if you don't know the official story, it's this: he “dissolved” his band”s” Parliament and Funkadelic [which mostly had the same people in them] at the dawn of the 80s, and continued to do the same thing he'd been doing for the past twelve years: write songs, make records with the same people, shake his butt, talk about shaking his butt, and probably lots of drugs. The only thing that changed was the names of the artists credited on the albums – “George Clinton”, “the P-Funk All-Stars”, and “George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars” replaced “Parliament” and “Funkadelic”). The generally favored part of the discography is the “classic” 70s output of Parliament and Funkadelic – but all I want to listen to these days is the non-classics.

This happens with all my favorite artists. I overplay all the famous records and then all I'm left with is the late-career masterpieces that only I appreciate. I'm always going on about how, say, Greendale is so worth it, man (I saw the tour – he did a rock opera! A ROCK OPERA!!!), and no really, you should check out Weird Revolution (Gibby co-wrote a song with Kid Rock! Called “The Shame of Life”!!!). Don't even get me started on Bob Dinners and Larry Noodles Present Tubby Turdner's Celebrity Avalanche.

Same goes for the Mothership. Everyone thinks the 80's records are the crappy records. No one hears "Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends" and says “Oh man I need to rush out right now and get everything this guy ever did!!!” Actually, no one ever hears "Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends", period. Which is kind of the point – the people that play the music are too busy playing "Tear the Roof off the Sucker" to get around to the Urban Dancefloor Guerillas album. But say you're George Clinton, and it's 1981. You have to do something, right? You already made all the good records.

(I just need to put in a plug here for Trombipulation, the final album released as Parliament, in 1980. If you know it at all, it's probably for the hook in “Let's Play House” which was made famous by Digital Underground in their 1988 hit “The Humpty Dance”. If you don't know it, you need it, serious. It's eight tracks of cocaine-sheen funk that came from another planet. The cover, too – a gatefold that just shimmers with dark silvery blue, George and the Sphinx with prosthetic elephant trunks. Mmmm. What a gem. But I digress.)

Yes. What to do when the fame monster casts is gaze elsewhere? Here's an answer: “Lord, bless this fish,” as George Clinton intones at the close of "You Shouldn't-Nuf Bit Fish". The title track, it's “filler”: a funky place-holder beat that George just kind of freestyles over for almost nine minutes, working on some whacked-out metaphor for the human race and how we're like fishes in the race to nuclear annihilation. I think it's something to do with “bit off more than you can chew” or maybe “be careful when you play with fire” but he's created a new idiom to express the thought: “you shouldn't-nuf bit fish”. Is that metonymy, when you are talking about one thing but you use an unrelated thing as a symbol/placeholder for it? I think that's closer to what he's doing here than metaphor. Because the human race isn't really like a fish, as far as I can tell.

Both Fish and Computer Games are totally great, start to finish. In the last couple weeks I've been playing them over and over, and the hooks have done their job – I'm a gibbering fanboy all over again. “Quickie” (co-written by dirty-blues icon and sometime P-Funk contributor Andre Williams) features an unstoppable guitar groove and a lovely Michael Hampton guitar solo (well actually it might be Williams, DuWayne McKnight, or even Eddie Hazel – they all get guitar credit on the album – but anyway it's super dirty and grimy); “Pot Sharing Tots” delivers on the promise of being a synth-marimba-driven number that answers the question “If we were babies, would I share drugs with you?” (the answer is yes); even the least cohesive selection, “Silly Millameter”, is a huge funk monster with glittering little horn twinkles and sort of a Heatwave quote (ok maybe that's just a coincidence) that pull you in and keep you rocking.

And, “Atomic Dog”. Holy crap.

What I love about Clinton and his discography is that he just keeps trying stuff, and he works with it till it sounds good. He doesn't care if it's not going to start an ass-based revolution like Mothership Connection – he's done with that (except that people still want to hear it so he plays it live). Exhaustion might play a role (he's only released five studio albums in the last 20 years, most recently an album of mostly cover material), but artistic paralysis? Not that I can hear. (Ok, I confess I haven't listened to anything he's done in the last fifteen years. But the records still get good reviews – except the most recent one – and Dope Dogs was awesome!)

Before long, I've overplayed everything in the Clinton catalog, from America Eats Its Young all the way through Hey Man... Smell My Finger, and I'm left where I was back in 1997: Clinton fatigue. I've identified this pattern in my life. I find out about some artist I'm really into and then I get everything. It's almost a sense of relief, an obvious but reliable recommendation: play Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon. Repeat till you're sick of it. Move on to Animals and Ummagumma. God help you if you can't stop before The Division Bell is all that's left. Why a relief? Because if you don't happen to have thousands of albums and a toddler, you need a way to keep yourself going. Recommendations aren't as easy as they seem.

Incidentally, in case it wasn't obvious, the same stuff is true in lots of other contexts. Brand loyalty keeps me buying the same kind of dish soap and eating at the same restaurants over and over again. The careers of film directors, bloggers, politicians and authors live and die on their ability to attract and retain a loyal fanbase. Trivial recommendations get their power from this obviousness, and it's their pitfall. When an artist inevitably makes a clunker (it always happens) the fandom just feels so betrayed. Emotionally injured, almost. Fortunately, there's always the old records, and if you get really, really sick of those, you can convince yourself to like the new one – or maybe you should just find a recommendation engine to tell you something you didn't already know about.