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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Review: Bongwater - The Power Of Pussy (Released 1991 on Shimmy Disc)



First put online on the Head Heritage website in 2005










For seven years between 1985 and 1992, Bongwater made some truly excellent recordings.

The core of this weird, sharp and wonderful beast consisted of Mark Kramer (all round instrumentalist, engineer, producer, a former member of Shockabilly, Half-Japanese and head of the Shimmy Disc label, not to mention his stints playing with New York Gong and Butthole Surfers
amongst many other things) and Ann Magnuson (Actress, Performance Artist, Vocalist).
They had crossed paths whilst Magnuson was performing live with Pulsalamma and Kramer was on sound engineering duties.

In 1987, they had made their first recording (after gaining the aid of Fred Frith) and thus started their journey.
A strange and wonderful journey that saw them craft a very strange take on psychedelia, but not without cutting observations on the world around them AND with a healthy and refreshing dose of twisted humour.

Their debut release for instance, an EP, saw a cover version of The Moody Blues' 1969 single- "Ride My See-Saw".
With Kramer's instrumental and studio expertise and Magnuson's excellent lyrics, versatile singing and character narrations, they not only carved out their own brand of accessible sounds but also lent totally new slants on other artists songs.
They were also augmented on the music front, by Kramer's former bandmates and friends to help fill the rhythm and sound out when needed.
Here we have David Licht (Percussives) and Dave Rick (Guitars).

Every Bongwater album has the power to draw you in, but it's this one that has that something special and although it has 17 tracks, it somehow becomes one big lush and very rewarding experience.
(There again, don't they all).

Kicking off with the title track (an uptempo affair with guest vocals by B52s man Fred Schneider), there's something great in the way that it crashes in with them all hollering- 

"The Power of Pussyyyyyyy!", then delivering the likes of the following.....

"Some have teeth, some have hair
some have soft sweet petals
some look like Cher....."

With an album title like this, it's no suprise that some of it's lyrical content explores many feminist issues (!), veiled through tongue-in-cheek humour as they are, it's done with such clever execution.

"Great Radio"- then sets in motion the drifting psychedelia which they were known for and has some nice sustained and scrambled fuzz guitar lines.
It's hard to explain it, but it's the way they just make it sound so simple, yet it has such a depth and blissed out feel.

"What If?"- is all creepy nursery rhyme type verses concerning the thoughts of a psychotic mind with minimal musical backing-

"What if I baked you a coconut cake
with lots of nuts, the kind that you hate
What if I threw your car keys in the lake
What if I made you cry
What if I told you lies..."

Both Kramer and Magnuson sing these lines so that the view can be observed by both sexes.

"Kisses Sweeter Than Wine"- is their splendid cover of an old folk song by The Weavers, which in this group's hands, lends it a very dark air.
With Peter Stampfel guesting on banjo, again the instrumentation is stark but the quiet power it yields is so enjoyable, especially the bobbing hand drum which propels it along.
Magnuson adds her own verse at the end of the song which completely turns the song on it's head, whilst in the process, makes your flesh creep.

"Chicken Pussy"- a processed cough jumps up before a strummed guitar comes forward, which sounds very similar to the guitar on a track named 'People' by Boyd Rice & Friends, from the (slightly more dark humoured) album 'Music, Martinis & Misanthropy'.
Magnuson relates the story of a woman who ends up with- "the big fat lead singer from Canned Heat"- who both end up with a character called 'Jimbo', whose wife is a chicken who- "must be able to change shape back and forth....and what about chicken pussy?....is it enticing? I mean, what's the story?"
A very odd story of "afternoon tea and a four-way", that in the end begs the question- "Is this the fullfillment of a fantasy hoped for?"

"White Rental Car Blues"- a very blissed-out and excellently sung track-
"there's a dead deer on the highway and it's reminding me of you..."
Just a couple of guitars and some soft splintered cymbal touches drive home some of the (ahem) heady imagery-

"I'll crawl on the floor of the rental car and put your tongue right in the groove.....maybe I'm getting too old for this, but I don't know what else to do"
It's great that the actual lyrics (believe it or not), don't sway you from the ethereal lull of the music, again so simple sounding, but all the time making it irresistable for you not to be charmed, the whole concoction is SO damn catchy!

"Nick Cave Dolls"
Beginning with an amusing spoken word soundbite and a jot of a delayed fly agaric ricochet, before a tape recording of a man that Kramer must have set up, to illustrate this hapless subjects stop-start speech pattern, moving on to a franticly manipulated tape of telephone touch-tones, we enter the world of a hooker on hollywood boulevard, on the way to a fallen film star client of hers, who happens to have a collection of dolls buried in his back yard, his favourite being his Nick Cave model.
Some slightly out of tune guitars and millitary snare drum adds to the trip down queasville, while sped-up vocals side-track the story with distant guitar wails-

"Wow! they have Nick Cave Dolls now?" she says suprised, "I want one!"
"Bedazzled"
Yes, it's the Dudley Moore song from the old Pete 'n' Dud flick of the same name.
Great call and response between the two here with Magnuson sounding like some sort of robotic dominatrix, only to shatter the fantasy with the deadpan way she intones- "I'm not available".
Some nice organ playing from Kramer as well (no pun intended!).

"Obscene and Pornographic Art"
The music has a pseudo-groovy late sixties tempo, while the character of the song slips into the 'metropolitan museum of art' and encounters all manner of sights and sounds (complete with much female moaning), eventually witnessing some suffragettes descending from the sky, before they break into a hilarious tune/tempo switch and rousing chorus of-

"I ain't wearing any underwear
I ain't wearing any underwear
I ain't wearing any underwear
I ain't wearing any underwear"
The track then leaves you with more very bizarre imagery that you wonder where they get the ideas and storylines from.

"Connie"- is more brash sounding with crashing guitars and drums and strange harmony vocals, hard to explain the effect of this, as it is the whole album!

"What Kind of Man Reads Playboy"
The weirdness factor is increased (you think it can't go any more, but it does) and you have a female voice saying- "Wow...Am I a slut?...this is better than a movie...do you think I'm a slut?"
Then Magnuson slips into another oddball persona, with a voice that sports some wierd sibilants which sounds like a harder, tougher, (dare I say it?), manly version of Jodie Foster, it never ceases to make me grin!
All the while more of that blissful folk-psyche backing, together with some odd tape-manipulation / scratching.

"I Need A New Tape"
Like the The Mamas & The Papas stuck somewhere between Jean-Paul Satre and Philip K Dick country!

"Woman Tied Up In Knots"
49 seconds of someone who delights in dragging out some japanese bondage comics when boredom starts to creep into the day. (???)

"Junior"
Acid scraped guitars and tip-tip cymbal sounds slowly burn up, while the small congregation sing about the daydreams of some of the smalltown picket fence shenanigans-

"Val and Tammy with their popsicle stains
drink cherry cola (from the big litre bottle)
from a big litre bottle, on the dirt lawn
mud when it rains....
turtle shells white from the sun...."

"Mystery Hole"
Just over a minute and a half long, but more packed in lyrics concerning "pink puffy preachers" who are "trying to close the mystery hole" - who the hell knows where these tales germinated, but it's all very pleasing and unsettling at the same time.

"Time Is Coming"
More odd voice samples at the start, then hand drums, guitars, slide guitar and lyrics which seem to herald the coming heathen saviours, ending with the gliding, chilling voices singing-

"Satan captured! Sing a song!
......the man in the photo is your father"

It could be the Manson girls wondering along the Santa Susana Pass.

"Folk Song"
An incredible finish and a very clever take on the 1960s protest song rant.
The starting is hilarious too- a sample of the very beginning of 'Roundabout' by Yes, which cuts to a female 'La La La' and then goes back to 'Roundabout' played by Kramer, mimicking someone just on the verge of learning the opening refrain.
The track then highlights what is probably the crowning glory of Magnuson's biting genius lyrics and delivered in a way that has to be heard to be believed.
It's such a tour-de-force, yet just voice, acoustic guitar, bass and minimal hum keyboards....

"....whatever makes you happy....whatever gives you hope....even if it's a truly tasteless joke......"
Anyone who has never heard any of Bongwater's material before and is looking for something soothing yet different and with the bonus of great and often very surreal humour, then these are the folks to visit.

__________________________
Written by Tim Jones may 2005

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