Family Fodder - Monkey Banana Kitchen [Staubgold - 2014]
Originally released in 1980, Family Fodder's original "Monkey Banana Kitchen" LP is presented here with the 12" "Schizophrenia Party", and the two 7"s ("Film Music" and "The Big Dig"), on this 2014 Staubgold CD re-issue. Though I was previously unfamiliar with it, the album is something of a classic of funky early 80's experimental 'freak pop', with moments reminiscent of Talking Heads, The Birthday Party, Suicide, Gary Numan and others.
The band can bring a powerful disco-inflected four-on-the-floor, and have great ears for curious textural layering and constantly changing instrument tones. Each song is quite distinctly different from the previous, often to the point of feeling totally unexpected. To my ears, the band is at their most musical and comfortable when jamming in a relaxed dub groove not unlike The Police and songs like "Walking on the Moon".
The band wastes a bit of time with the 3 versions of intro track "Darling" (the others of which are called "Monkey" and "Banana"). This track is a number of choral vocal parts and cartoonish exaggerated voices looping out of rhythm with each other, saying such phrases as "reasons in the monkey house", "with a banana" and "in the kitchen"... An experiment which never cohered into anything in particular.
This re-issue does not appear to be remastered, and as my feelings have soured towards remasters in recent years after hearing a few too many botched jobs, I'm grateful for this. The sound quality is raw, punchy, and uncompressed as it ever was, dominated by big, picked basslines, with nice gritty bits of analog overload and crackle hear and there, and some charmingly sloppy musicianship immediately obvious. Everything about it screams "early 80's postpunk".
Other songs, particular the 12" bonus tracks, or generally any and all tracks sung by the French woman with the high mousey voice (Dominique Levillain), rely far too heavily on the "cute" factor. No matter how 'ironic' it is meant to be, retardedly simple lyrics such as "Film music is empty, it pleases me, come and see! / It makes me feel good / Makes me better or worse / Better or worse than before / I love film music, I think it's good for me!" (from "Film Music") do nothing for me, and seem to have no intrinsic cadence or particular care taken with their word choice. Stereolab would later perfect this naive, dreamy style of pop tune; Dominique's attempts are, by comparison lacking in melody and replay value, just far too bludgeoningly obvious.
Though not sung by Dominique, the following track, "Dinosaur Sex", with its refrain "Dinosaur sex! You make me feel like a tyrannosaurus rex!" begins nearly as bad, nearly stooping to the level of blatantly simplistic gag music, and seemingly disgustingly British, though also attempting something like a Zappa-esque absurd existentialism. Luckily, the song is entirely saved by the 4 minutes of improvisation jamming at the end; this is a band that truly explores luminous, beautiful psychedelic dimensions with their rich, effects-laden instrumental tones and interplay. I would probably enjoy a totally instrumental album by this group more than this disk.
The vocals in tracks like "Better Lies" are much better, the sort of soulful, romantic tenor one often associates with new wave and the 80's. Really, the music on this disk is all over the map, I must applaud for attempting a number of different styles and approaches. As much as I prefer some bits to others, I admire the inclusive spirit that drove them to unite such different ideas in one musical unit. The band's energy and inventiveness is infectious, recalling such albums as Wire's "154", in which every conceivable sort of sound was coaxed from the band's limited gear.
If your favorite bands include absurd, sing-songy music such as Gong, Phish, They Might Be Giants, or Ween, chances are you'll have no problem with anything found on this disk. However, if such things make you cringe, a number tracks are likely to turn you off. It's all a matter of taste I suppose, as I must admit such bands provide refreshingly light hearted, novel and intelligent perspectives in contrast to more 'serious' music, though I typically listen to them in small doses for fear of too many irritating tunes repeating in my mind.
No doubt, this is a great re-issue, so if you're a fan of this band / album, and missing any of this material, pick this up; it's a cost effective way to get quality versions of these formerly vinyl only tracks. In addition, this record is undoubtedly influential and important, regardless of my personal opinion of it, and its echoes can be clearly heard in countless bands of today. I recommend it on this basis, provided you can stomach 'cute' music, though I can only see myself listening to 1/2 of these songs with any frequency, and others I will surely avoid.Josh Landry