(Thrill Jockey, 2013)
In 2013, I discovered that John Terlesky was still alive. Not only that, he was still making music. Not only that, he was tripping his ass off (well, the actuality of the tripping is debatable) and conversing with other musicians in a talk-show format, albeit a web-only, public-access-cable-type production. I saw him talk with Baltimore superhero Ed Schrader of Ed Schrader’s Music Beat while the latter was quite sober (maybe on a sugar high, though). It was an enjoyable experience, and I recommend it to you.
Oh yeah, I also discovered he was still making records. Good records. On Thrill Jockey, no less. (I don’t know why I’m surprised by that. The label is consistently excellent, and does not conform to genre. Their existence should be praised from every mountaintop.)
I first happened upon Brother JT as a teen in the Allentown/Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, area, where Terlesky’s from (and where he has contributed music reviews to the local newspaper for years – yes, still a local paper there). There, his band The Original Sins were huge, having released a handful of records throughout the 1990s and playing fairly often. I somehow got my hands on 1996’s Bethlehem album, and it was my de facto introduction – it’s a later record, but hey, its title was tres local, and the title track referenced the Baby Jesus getting stolen from the well-known Nativity scene in front of the Bethlehem Public Library. I knew where that was! I knew what they were singing about!
That was 1996. The last Original Sins material came out in 1997. Brother JT continued on. I lost track.
Today, he’s back with The Svelteness of Boogietude, a collection so mesmerizing and enjoyable it’s got to be a smash hit. Always somehow behind (or ahead of) trends as mainstream media focused on what Terlesky wasn’t doing (thanks a shit ton, Nirvana), Svelteness pretty much comes at the right time. And I can’t explain why that is – maybe he’s finally found the perfect outlet at Thrill Jockey, nestled among their roster. Maybe it’s because Svelteness is a stylistic roller coaster, brilliantly melding psych, folk, garage, and soul in a postmodern matrix recalling everybody from The Brian Jonestown Massacre to Scott Walker to Marc Bolan. Toss a little bit of Ween in there on the really weird numbers, like “Sweatpants.” Or “Muffintop.” (In fact, muffin tops are mentioned in both “Sweatpants” and “Muffintop.”) Or maybe it’s just because you read a title like The Svelteness of Boogietude and just completely understand exactly what it means and sounds like without hearing a note or a word. It’s a title that deserves a knowing chuckle and an immediate needle drop. It’s a title made for your goddamn headphones.
I don’t think it gets anymore perfect or weird on the early album trifecta of “Muffintop,” “Be A,” and “Sweatpants,” each a remarkable achievement in out-there’dness. The psych folk strains of “Muffintop” contain both allusions to the titular oblique bulges (“Your chub I grab, I love the flab”) and other, er, easily-rhymable-with-“muffintop” couplets (“Mountaintop, oh mountaintop, why you moving to Mohammad I think he’s a jerk”). The juxtaposition is spot on, clashing ugly culture with ugly culture’s view of other ugly cultures. I don’t think I’m making Terlesky out to be smarter than he is, but he’s certainly got a unique eye for satire. (Or, then again, he might be a total genius.) “Be A” is a fabulous 13th Floor Elevators knockoff, and pretty much a string of imperatives for various existences. And “Sweatpants” … oh, “Sweatpants.” There’s some Ween here, maybe some earlier Beck, most obviously in the vocal manipulation but also in the squeaky four-tracky faux funk and sorta-rap delivery. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion too in attitude. JT pretty much praises ladies going to the store – the “juice store” – in sweatpants. He talks about camel toes. He literally prays for the song to be popular, ostensibly so he can wear sweatpants all the time (“Oh please Jesus make this fucking song a hit ’cause I need money”).
I could so totally go on, but hey, look at the word count. “Celebrate Your Face” (“it’s the only one you got”) is like three choruses in one song, and is the perfect lead track. “T. Rex Blues” made me double take at the track list to see that I hadn’t accidentally left it on shuffle and it wasn’t actually the band T. Rex playing. “I Still Like Cassettes” is some weird dark basement disco tune explaining exactly what the title suggests (“[they] are my favorite format”). Some of these songs are kind of long, but they don’t feel that way in the slightest. They ride grooves and shift and jiggle and mack and throw down, just like Terlesky promises. The Svelteness of Boogietude is less an album than a state of being, an auditory companion to Trippin’ Balls, maybe, but definitely a wiggly ass grab and triumphant acid-soaked statement of purpose. Which, of course, Brother JT has been preaching for a long time.
Oh, and this song isn’t on the album, even though it says it is. It’s called “Brother JT”! Awesome!
RIYL: The Original Sins, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Ween, Mark Lanegan