Butthole Surfers

Weird Revolution(Hollywood/Sundog)

The last five years have been tough on the Butthole Surfers. Their 1996 album Electric Larryland spawned the unlikely hit "Pepper," an odd blend of rap and grunge that was the first taste of mainstream success for a group better known for scatological imagery and hair-raising orgies of psychedelic noise than for hip-hop power ballads. However, the Austin trio's momentum stalled when its label, Capitol Records, refused to release the group's follow-up to Larryland.

Now, five years later, guitarist Paul Leary, percussionist King Coffey and singer Gibby Haynes have finally reemerged, with a new label and album. Well, sort of. It's been remixed and partially rerecorded, and they've added a couple of new tunes to sweeten the pot, but their new release on Hollywood/Sundog Records, Weird Revolution, is essentially the same record they originally presented to Capitol four years ago.

The music on Weird Revolution is such a radical departure from their previous work that it's easy to imagine why Capitol got cold feet. Gone are the punk-rock drums and guitars, replaced by the clean trappings of electronica and a commercial sensibility so different that it barely sounds like the same band that made Rembrandt Pussyhorse and Locust Abortion Technician. Yet in some ways, Weird Revolution represents a return to the days before the grunge-era pop songwriting of their major-label debut, 1994's Independent Worm Saloon.

The Butthole Surfers' music has always been an unlikely combination of happy accidents, meticulous structure, high ambition and low tech, and though the band no longer works under primitive studio conditions, much of the new album recalls the experimentation of its earlier work. Tracks like "Yentel," "Shit Like That" and "Mexico" layer electronic noises, found material and odd spoken passages into collages that are more surreal sound sculptures than performable songs. Their brain-fried humor has also survived intact, and every song is filled with bizarre word play. The title track serves as a kind of manifesto, as Haynes exhorts the "weird masses" to rise up against the "normal man" in a speech inspired by Malcolm X: "The freaks can't be formally normalized, nor can we be normally formalized. What we want is complete weirdification."

But such tracks are relegated to filler here. The Buttholes' true aim here is to connect with a new audience and to score a couple of hit singles. The radio-friendliness of tracks like "Dracula From Houston," "Venus" and the album's first single, "The Shame of Life" (co-written by Haynes and Kid Rock), makes this point abundantly clear. You can hardly fault them for this approach; these days, major labels inevitably refuse to gamble on albums without clearly discernible hit potential. Even for punk-rock legends, the coming of middle age cannot help but bring with it a change in priorities. As time passes, the demands of art take less precedence than the need to provide a roof over your head and comfort for your aging pets. And "it takes a lot of money," as the band itself admits on "Intelligent Guy."

Weird Revolution is a transitory work, more about the band's own reinvention than anything else. As such, the overall effect is somewhat tentative and unsatisfying. It's a tribute to both their tenacity and their stubbornness that they stuck with these recordings for as long as they did, but having survived this long and having fought so hard to remain in the game, the Butthole Surfers hopefully have more to show for themselves than an album of five-year-old recordings. Hopefully, this album will net them the success they deserve and they'll come out of the box with greater confidence next time.

 
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