What's that you say? Mike Keneally isn't new? And Sluggo is a release from the late 1990s?
Oh dang. You caught me.
Ah well, so I'll come clean. I knew of Mike's music because I'm a pretty hardcore Zappa fanatic. I have had his first solo album, Hat, for years. While it wasn't top of my listening pile, I certainly have respected the guy's wizardly playing over the years. Despite the noblest of efforts by a good friend to get me enthused about Kenneally's band back in the 1990s, Beer For Dolphins, I wrongly glazed over his music back in the day. You see... I was busy with my own band, in the heart of flowering amazing relationship, had a career in transition and any number of other legitimate excuses.
I know. My bad. Mea Culpa.
That said, I have gone through a major reappraisal of Keneally's songwriting after becoming a fan of his wonderful 2012 collaboration with Andy Partridge (of XTC!) called Wing Beat Fantastic.
Here we are probably in 2014 when you are likely reading this and I've now been listening to Mr. Keneally and his 90s band Beer For Dolphins a whole lot lately, especially the super deluxe reissue of his 1997 album entitled Sluggo.
Well first and foremost, it's a whole helluvalotta fun! Keneally writes some extremely magical, heady-blended music that echoes the mind bending twists and turns of geniuses past (Zappa, Beefheart), yet with a pop sensibility of Beatle-inspired writers like XTC's Partridge as well as the raw ability to rock like a mofo ala vintage Zep (more on the latter later). There is also some of that "inexplicable something" I'm sensing in Keneally's music which -- apart from Flo & Eddie and Adrian Belew -- I have not come across in the music from other Zappa band alumni.
Compositionally, he is playing on a level not many have approached since, well, Frank Zappa. As a musician, he's a stunner, switching between gorgeous guitar and piano pyrotechnics in a breath. Keneally has a lovely, expressive singing voice not all that far removed from Andy Partridge's but with a wider range. It all works really well together.
This isn't throwaway fake Zappa. This is real deal music to challenge your sense of what is possible. Keneally's music swings, leaps and prances around time and space, free of constraints, from jazz to pop to metal in a heartbeat. There is one tune, I swear, that reminds me of Queens of the Stone Age (QOTSA) , with that sort of signature slide guitar melody over heavy metal riffing thing going on (of course, QOTSA's first album didn't come out until a year later).
While listening to Sluggo, I've been experiencing that same joy and wonderment I used to get when listening to new Zappa recordings, especially the material from Joe's Garage on backward. Keneally's lyrics are (perhaps) a bit more straightforward than Zappa's, and that is a good thing since he is not Zappa. Still, some of these songs on Sluggo have sonic touchstones recalling late 60s Zappa as well as the legendary mid-70s Roxy and Elsewhere-era band. Some tracks feel akin to the music Zappa created for the Lather album.
Honestly, I haven't been quite this enthused listening to this sort of music since... well.... Zappa!
No, there are no running jokes about Poodles or encounters with Mud Sharks. But there are weirdly titled tunes like "Frozen Beef" and "Egg Zooming" and "Cardboard Dog." And yet, the title track could be a Dr. John or Professor Longhair solo piano workout!
The super deluxe edition of Sluggo -- available from Keneally's website -- features a remixed CD (with previously unreleased bonus tracks), a DVD-Audio disc with high resolution uncompressed stereo and 5.1 surround mixes as well as a standard DVD with hours of bonus live concert footage and even a copy of the original 1997 CD mix! While the CD sounds remarkably good, the 5.1 mix (in uncompressed MLP) is a whole lot of fun, keeping the rock rhythm section largely front and center but using the surrounds for nifty harmonies, solos and other aural fun ("I Guess I'll Peanut" is a fun piece kitsch which has some fun with the surrounds, as it should be!)
Oh yeah. I forgot about the Zep reference earlier. As a bonus for buying the deluxe Sluggo I also received a live -- and autographed! -- bonus CD of Keneally and Beer for Dolpins from 1998 which has an absolutely kick ass version of Zep's "Immigrant Song" on it. I mean, if Robert Plant was sitting in with the band you'd have a monster band that could do justice to the Zep legend and yet take it some other places. A big wow!
Here is a link to a YouTube video of Keneally doing the tune more recently at NY's Iridium. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfgZC_ovlyo
Do visit Mike Keneally's website at http://www.keneally.com and be sure to check out his great album with Andy Partridge, Wing Beat Fantastic and his fine brand NEW album You Must Be This Tall (which I'm still exploring).
Lots of cool music to catch up on here folks!
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.