You’ve all seen on “Sesame Street” when the two-headed monster slinks onto the screen, sounds out its supremely complex, polysyllabic word — “basketball” or “pencil” — then attempts to walk off-screen. But each head goes in a different direction, whereupon an argument ensues much to the delight of thousands of developing toddlers. While this slapstick might work on public television, it does not work in music. Oysterhead is a three-headed monster, walking in different directions and going nowhere. Primus’ Les Claypool, the Police’s Stewart Copeland and Phish’s Trey Anastasio realized their affliction upon completing a disastrous debut set at 2000’s New Orleans Jazzfest. In its aftermath, they doubted that they would ever play together again. But here they are, in all their glory.
Primus’ greatness was that it could be completely unfocused and still pull it off. Unfortunately, Claypool brings his unfocused energy to a group that simply (and surprisingly) does not have the chemistry to pull it off. While Claypool floats in his natural environment, Copeland craves a more structured atmosphere and Anastasio sounds constrained. In many places, the Phish guitarist is poised to take over the song, but at the last second holds back for the sake of humility. The Police’s lyrics told stories of haunting love and loss, Primus’ of absurd epics, Phish’s of the abstractions beneath the surface of everyday life. Oysterhead’s lyrics seem silly; the effort just isn’t there. For example, “Shadow of a Man” is horribly outdated, protesting a long-dead war that has already been wrung dry of aesthetic value. Most of the songs, exemplified by “Mr. Oysterhead” and “Grand Pecking Order,” clomp clumsily along, stumbling drunken giants squishing peasants with every disjointed step. They do mesh at times, however, when they don’t try too hard and give in to poppier predilections in songs such as, “Oz Is Ever Floating” and “Owner of the World.”
Overzealous Primus fans, Zappa nuts and those who admire the quirky mistakes of talented musicians will cherish this album; Phish-heads or Police fans may be baffled. It was too good to be true. They should have been Cream. Maybe musicians can be too talented for their own good.
Oysterhead performs with Drums & Tuba on Sunday, Nov. 4 at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor.
E-mail Joshua Gross at [email protected].