The Weasels, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (Mustella Furioso, 2018)
The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is the seventh studio long player from The Weasels of Albany, New York, who have been offering exquisitely crafted uneasy listening to discerning audiences since the early 1990s. Anchored as always around the songwriting partnership of Dr Fun (who also provides lead vocals, woodwinds, keyboards and sundries) and Roy Weäsell (guitars, vocals, keyboards, programs, etc.), The Man Who Saw Tomorrow features 15 new cuts that apply the duo’s sardonic worldview to a surprisingly topical and timely palette of subjects, creating a very smart, very classy record that’s very much a choice product of its time, never mind how very, very stupid its time happens to be.
Examples: “Et tu Harvey” and “I Sing The Weiner Electric” draw their inspirations from media coverage surrounding the base behavior of notorious #MeToo-era creeps Harvey Weinstein and Anthony Weiner, but then project those galling stories’ awful sensationalism through a twisted surrealist’s lens, turning them into a pair of modern morality parables that have good beats, to which you can cha-cha. “Wokeflake” and “New Black” also tap into current phrases, feelings, and fetishes, and both are charmingly wistful, even as they stomp the broken butterflies of youthful idealism, and deftly nestle today’s traumas into a spectrum of spectacles stretching back a cool century, most especially via the delicious “Wokeflake” chorus text of “Hello America and all the ships at sea / Goodnight Miss Calabash, wherever you may be.” (Walter Winchell and Jimmy Durante there, kids. Google ’em).
And the hits keep coming. “Winona Minnesota” is a heart-worm infected modern love song (“If I loved you like I hate you, all our troubles would be over”) that rides a ridiculously sinuous bass line from guest Weasel Baba Elefante. “Finnegans Wake” is, well, Finnegans Wake, flush with Joyce-isms (e.g. words that don’t quite make sense, but add up to something more than they would if they did), all set to a jolly drinking tune and with Dr Fun stepping away from the microphone to give Weäsell his customary once-per-record lead vocal turn. “Cherry Of Course” and “Gold Medal Flower” have rolling, repetitive, romping, rhyming lyrics that creep pleasurably close to Edward Lear territory, the former over a rollicking country swing, the latter atop a synth-fortified funk strut. “George Barely” offers a zesty effervescence to the record’s mid-latitudes, all cheer and bubbles and fun, though with a hanging, unfinished chorus line — “and if I ever get the urge to play the blues or sing a dirge . . .” — that adds a pinch of piquant to the proceedings as you ponder just how Fun might finish that phrase.
I could readily and enjoyable unpack every one of The Man Who Saw Tomorrow‘s thirteen lyrics (one song’s an instrumental; more on that latter) at essay length, but for general review purposes, let me settle for saying that these songs are smart beyond reproach, and truly invite and reward active, deep listens. The Weasels’ deft deployment of word play, story-telling, random asides, cryptic references, literary allusions, broadcast bromides, sampled media snippets and other subliminal mutterings are engaging and entertaining, and the depth of meaning gets stronger and stranger as you peel the lyrical onion layers back, trying to figure out just what’s going on, and just how Fun and Weäsell managed to make earworms from such unexpected turns of phrase.
On the musical/instrumental front, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is mostly delivered by a crack core band of Dr Fun, Roy Weäsell, guitarist Chuck D’Aloia and drummer Art Bernstein. The quartet have chops to spare, and D’Aloia is particularly and notably on fire throughout this album’s run, delivering tasty licks and titanic solos, soup to nuts. With decades and decades of stage and studio experience between them, the core quartet have got the skills to deliver the goods in rock, jazz, folk, country or pretty much any other idioms that inspire them, often pivoting on a dime between genres within a single song, like when an unexpected little breakbeat-EDM-electroclash thingie breaks out at the end of the clattering Bernstein-driven Vaudeville blues of “Fancy That.” There are also a pair of terrific traditional blues numbers with laugh out loud clever lyrics (“Ointment for My Stump” and “Yuge”) and a chunky, funky instrumental groove called “Planieren Sie Die Mond,” which upon closer inspection turns out to be an instrumental remake of “Bulldoze the Moon” from The Weasels’ 1995 sophomore album, Leon’s Mystical Head; the new version of the song features Fun on — wait for it — amazing jazz flute stylings.
Production and sound are as exquisite here as they ever are on a Weasels record (I’m not the only person to have compared them to Steely Dan when it comes to studio fastidiousness), with group co-founder and prodigal sound man Chris Graf returning to the fold (along with Scott Apicelli) to deliver a deep, rich mix that’s a joy on good speakers and (old school) headphones, with all sorts of touches layered atop, between and beneath the obvious bits that you catch on first listen. It’s never busy, but it’s textured in all the right ways. I know The Weasels’ catalog well, and I’ve had a lot of time to spin this disc over the past month and a half with some trans-Atlantic flights and long train trips along the way, and I’m inclined to place The Man Who Saw Tomorrow beside 1998’s Uranus or Bust as their two finest records. (Both Tomorrow and Uranus, as it happens, feature cover art from Michael Oatman, who co-created the “Weasel Vision” multi-media extravaganza back in the days when The Weasels were a live concern). It’s a classic, instantly. And no doubt for years to come, too.
As something of a coda, I want to close this review by discussing opening and closing tracks “Nostradamus is Dead” and “When in Rome” in a bit more detail, as they perfectly frame this exceptional album, lyrically, contextually, and musically. The opener’s got the ballsiest rock riffs on the record, as it spins a tale about, yes, “the man who saw tomorrow,” knitting in narratives about Nostradamus’ fellow traveler seers, hucksters, and seer-hucksters, famous and otherwise, from days gone by, days disgustingly present, and days yet to come. “The world is ending in a horrible fashion,” Fun sings, before noting that we sure could sure use a future-seeing warlock now to help us pierce the fog of worlds on fire and flying saucers crashing and skies turned red and such like. Jesus even makes an appearance here (in his 900-foot tall form), and the song ends with Fun calling out “hey” to a swirling litany of the semi-famous dead, none of whom ever answer.
“When in Rome” opens instrumentally like some lost Earth, Wind and Fire ballad, then rides a killer D’Aloia lick into a tale about an unnamed “he” (or maybe “He” is more fitting) who plans a special celebration, which is described in loving detail, and sounds utterly delightful, until He suddenly and unexpectedly cuts all of His guests’ heads off, mounts them on poles, and later eats pudding from their scooped-out skulls. And that’s just in the first verse! Verse two then explores a world gone crazy (“its brains run out its nose”) where “even Jesus prays that he can make it through the night,” until . . .
” . . . And when the nails were driven, not a fuck was given.
When in Rome, you do as Romans do.
And when the thorns were woven, and the spear was drove in,
when in Rome, you do as Romans do . . .”
Things then dissolve into a swirling fever dream of striking images and incantations (“a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy is a monkey”), culminating with the song’s and the album’s final words — “I fear we’re not in Kansas anymore” — after which D’Aloia solos us out into oblivion, world without end, amen, amen. “When In Rome” is an absolute masterpiece lyric, and a superb companion to fellow album closer “Doubting Thomas” from 2013’s AARP Go The Weasels, which also evoked the passion of Christ in trying to capture just what’s helplessly wrong and perverse about the world around us, and just what we all did to make it that way. Jesus wept, indeed.
It’s heavy, it’s profound, it’s sad, it’s funny, and EWF’s Philip Bailey could totally sing it if he wanted to, because the song itself is so damn funky, and soulful, and sweet. That deeply incongruous and deeply effective/affective (both apply) approach to lyric-writing and music-making has always provided the magic at the heart of The Weasels’ now 100-song strong catalog. What a pleasure it is, every few years or so, whether we deserve it or not, to look up in wonder at a new constellation of wonderful Weasels weirdness, sparkling above the wan and wasted plain of modern musical mediocrity.
LINKS AND REFERENCES:
The Weasels Website (Includes album ordering information)
The Weasels at Wikipedia (History and full discography)
J. Eric Smith’s Top 30 Albums of 2018 (Including This One)