Crate-Digging: Tobacco – Fucked Up Friends

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. In fact, I believe I’ll skip around for all of March…

(Anticon, 2008)

Childhood is undoubtedly a traumatic experience for everyone, no matter how you’re raised or into which social situation you’re born. As you grow up, you’re constantly learning, often the hard way, falling face-first into tables, eating dirty candy from the ground, petting mangy dogs at the park that may or may not have owners – you know, the normal routine. Tobacco – actually Tom Fec, leader and mastermind behind Pittsburgh psychedelic weirdos (and personal faves) Black Moth Super Rainbow – taps into this odd nightmare of innocents staring into the maw of evil and seeing nothing but brightly colored monsters offering poison candy, backed by raucous and enticing music. This is dark fantasy stuff. But it’s certainly geared toward adults who remember being simultaneously intrigued and terrified during long-past Halloween nights – or, if they were lucky, supernaturally enhanced ones. At the very least, listening to Fucked Up Friends – and no, I don’t like the title either (not that I’m scared of the “F” word [ooh!] it’s just that I don’t think that kind of bluntness is all that necessary for such an album) – should conjure sugar-fueled late-night memories, sticky fingers pawing and tearing wrappers, caramel and nougat clinging to tiny faces, pupils dilated in shock and joy. That sounds like quite a bit of fun, actually.

It’s that balance that Tobacco, as well as BMSR, strikes between giddy childishness and very real horror that contributes to the overall appeal of both projects. Imagine, then, Fec as a scary oversized clown or deranged candy maker, luring children into his lair with promises of sweets, only to strangle them with cotton candy, drown them in syrup, bake them into pies (a la “Hansel and Gretel”), or cram jellybeans down their throats until they’re violently vomiting pink goo everywhere. (Hey, look, there’s a song called “Pink Goo” here. Appropriate.) Sort of a backwoods Willy Wonka, maybe. But don’t start getting freaked out about child abduction or something – if that’s where you think this is going, you’ve got the whole thing wrong. It’s more a carnivalesque house of horrors than real danger – because if anybody knows anything about childhood, it’s the kids who end up defeating the big bad monsters. Maybe you get a tummyache in the aftermath. Boo hoo. Big deal.

So Tobacco whips up this gooey, gross confection, and spoon feeds us his sugary discomfort – and I’m obviously all for it. I will not-so-humbly admit that I was listening to BMSR back in the days before Dandelion Gum, Dave Fridmann, and tour stops with The Flaming Lips (and good for BMSR, by the way), so I’m vitally prepared to take on anything Fec and co. have to offer. And Fucked Up Friends continues in the grand Black Moth tradition, not only in ways I’ve mentioned above, but really also in the grand scheme, as Fec himself has said that this record is the logical follow-up to Dandelion Gum. (BMSR’s Eating Us dropped the next year, so, I guess that was a follow-up to FUF. Or something. I’m not not confused…) And let’s face it – Tobacco is the man in the studio for BMSR, kind of like how Billy Corgan played D’arcy’s and James Iha’s parts during the Siamese Dream sessions. So BMSR records are essentially Tobacco records, and vice versa – it’s just a matter of where the tunes fall.

Fec brings the quease though, no doubt about it, and his brand of vertigo-inducing psych-instru-hop has fully formed itself throughout his catalog, rendering tracks like “Street Trash” – which opens the record with a low-end synthesizer scraping the pavement before the high end rockets in and buoys the trademark wordless vocoder la-las – and the bubbling tonal junkyard workout “Truck Sweat” (ew – and not the first time I’ll say that) in an ugly, squeamish, neon-orange hue. Dandelion Gum retread “Side 8 (Big Gums Version)” has a delightful Castlevania vibe, and it and counterpart “Backwoods Altar” are essentially the starting points for the witch house subgenre. Pinks, greens, and yellows swirl in and out as well on roller-disco throwback “Hairy Candy” (God, I know!), a standout with actual vocals – although the lyrics are typical Fec fare in that he repeats something about being “in the sun” and “chewing gum” over and over, themes with which you’ll become intimately familiar the deeper into his catalog you get. “Gross Magik” fulfils the need for the inclusion of the “you and me melt away together/forever, holding hands” conceit. This is essentially the depth of a Tom Fec lyrical production – and that’s OK when the gauze, goo, and haze engulf you and your senses are overloaded to insane degrees. You don’t need more.

But holy crap, what’s this? An Aesop Rock guest spot, the only guest spot on the album in fact, halfway through? Oh yes, please. And although the whole album plays like a breath of fresh, albeit thick, air, “Dirt” cuts through the fog with Aesop’s typical razor-sharp wit, dropping references to Don Quixote, Wyle E. Coyote, and Ben Kenobi (yes – those last names rhyme … ish); far-out, freaky nature magic (“we animate the council of the topiary wolves” – oh hell no; and topiary bears and apes appear as well); and even deep “self”-referential knowledge like a BMSR member’s pseudonym (Power Pill Fist) and Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River. The song is the best thing on the album – and it’s kind of a quick burst of energy, then gone. Tobacco’s laconic beats are a perfect backdrop for stoner rap – let’s hope he produces an entire album full of guest spots at some point.

Fucked Up Friends loses a little bit of steam after Aesop Rock’s departure, which is really the only complaint – it’s a tad long at fifteen tracks, at least five of which could have been excised for a tighter run-through. But that’s so minor when enjoying this sticky mess. So sit back, relax, flick on your favorite seizure-inducing cartoon, and help yourself to a bowl of day-glo cereal – eat it with your hands, of course.

RIYL: Black Moth Super Rainbow, Boards of Canada, Beck

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