REVIEW: Various Artists: Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel
Various Artists: Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel (Off Records, 2001)
Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel's artist listing reads like an indie rock Who's Who. Guided by Voices. Stephen Malkmus. Sentridoh. Black Heart Procession. I mean, yum!
Of course, the first warning bell is that "A CONCEPT ALBUM" is emblazoned in big Western letters on the front of the album. Sure, Radiohead, Modest Mouse and the Beatles have had some success with concept albums, but here we've got fifteen different artists uniting to tell some weird, quasi-narrative tale. The story of Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel.
And it doesn't really work.
Some of the songs are very entertaining - we'll get to that later - and Jeff's mixed up tale is moderately engaging, but listening to the album a second time (or a sixth time) presses on the nerves. The record does have cohesion, most of the tracks can be linked by a buzzy, rawk vibe, but it doesn't have effect. It tells a story, but the narrative is high on complexity, low on emotion. Unlike Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica, for instance, the nineteen tracks are so busy being witty, tongue-and-cheek or expository (in typical indie rock fashion), the listener doesn't leave the experience affected in any way. "Well, that was okay," you think, but it's hardly a moving seventy minutes. There's no over-arching theme, no moral... Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel doesn't really bring you anywhere.
It doesn't really help that many of the cuts aren't very good. The stupid yammering on Ann Magnuson and Dave Rick's "Dr Mom" gets tiring within a couple of minutes, but Ann just needs to tell us all about the kooky things happening to Jeffrey. Stephen Malkmus' "Blue Rash Intact" is intensely disappointing - a mess of inaudible lyrics and frustrating techno, nowhwere near the clumsy elegance of his solo album. Macha's droning "He Remembers His Burial At Sea" is all right at first, the organ underlining the monotone delivery, but there's no climax, just a flat choral flourish and strained vocals.
On the other hand, the song's opener, "Titus and Strident Wet Nurse" show Guided By Voices to be in fine form, Robert Pollard's sugarcane voice like a soft mallet over alternating synth bleeps. Quasi throws in a typically jangly pop number, and the Black Heart Procession's "One Hand Tore the Side" is a typically spooky song, replete with wind sounds and funeral dirge vocals. The high point of the disc, however, is Weird War's highly unusual "I'll Never Forget What's His Name". It's decidedly not my style, but Ian Svenious' sloppy vocals are both whiny and alluring, their strangeness only making the song more fascinating. Svenoious croons and whinges over plinky piano and sweet coos of his band-mates. I really don't know what he's singing about, but he means it. "Yeah yeah yeah," he cries, replete with Mick Jagger yowl, and the rawness of the recording (or the track's electronic interlude) aren't heavy with the pretension of much of indie rock. It's all sincere, a fierce attempt to communicate something, and even if it's indecipherable, it's understandable.
On the whole, though, a few bright spots can't solve the album's inherent problem: it's got nothing to say. Had acts like Grandaddy or The Minus 5 turned in stand-outs instead of run-of-the-mill ho-hum, the disc might have worked as an indie fan's Mix CD. In the end, though, Colonel Pumpernickel remains lost at sea, and not even Goldcard's great incidental music can pull him back in.