“AARP Go The Weasels”

In 1995, I started working as a music critic for Albany, New York’s alternative newsweekly, Metroland. I would stop by the office once a week a pick up a pile of records (some still vinyl, some cassettes and some CDs at that point), a few of which would have elaborate press kits accompanying them, but most of which would just be sitting there, unexplained. In those barbaric pre-Google days, there was no easy way to find out much about the lower-profile artists who sent the fruits of their labor my way, so I’d end up listening to and reviewing many of their records in the dark, with no preconceived notions based on what I’d read before I spun the music.

AARP front coverAt the end of my first year with Metroland, I was asked to pick my ten favorite albums of 1995, and most of them were by artists with whom I’d been familiar when that fortuitous year had commenced. One notable exception, though: an incredible record called Leon’s Mystical Head by The Weasels. One of my fellow Metroland critics had reviewed the album earlier in the year, and her article had made me pull it from the big pile of mysterious, unexplained discs I’d accumulated, and it blew my mind: it featured extraordinarily well-written — yet often horrifically disturbing and politically incorrect — lyrics atop catchy and melodic jazz/blues based musical beds, delivered by an ace band.

Best of all, I learned from my colleague’s 1995 review that The Weasels were a national-caliber band of homegrown pedigree . . . I had no idea who they were, but it was nice to know that they were Albany neighbors, and they thus became the first locally-bred Albany band that made me actively contemplate the fact that world class music was emerging from what was then (to me) a largely undiscovered market, beyond early MTV favorites Blotto.

As it turned out, that geographic proximity resulted in me later doing freelance work with several members of the Weasels in the years that followed, as well as the opportunity to see them live several times. I caught their very last concert appearance in October 2000, at which point they turned into Albany’s version of Steely Dan, offering only occasional slabs of sardonic studio work fortified by performances by the region’s very best studio players. While their live appearances dried up, their studio work just got stronger and stronger, and it was a real treat to have a local insider’s view into their creative progress, which was truly formidable.

And so, while I no longer live in Albany, it is a particular delight to report on The Weasels’ sixth studio album, AARP Go The Weasels, which was released on Valentine’s Day, 2013. I’m pleased to write about it here not as a partisan former member of Team Albany, but as a music aficionado who values great songwriting and great performances, regardless of the cities from which they hail. This is a great album, by a great band, no matter where you live.

Core Weasel players and songwriters Dr. Fun and Roy Weasell (both members in good standing of polite Albany society, hence the pseudonyms, lest their Weasel activities interfere with their other jobs) are joined on the new disc by the best rhythm section they’ve had in their long career together. Bassist Jon Cohen has been an on again/off again Weasel since their earliest days, and he is supported on the back-line on this record by the legendary Alexander Kash, whose back story includes stints in Australian pre-punk pop titans Blackfeather, among many other bands. Weasell’s rhythm guitar and mandolin work perfectly anchor the new album’s songs, while Fun sings some of his best lyrics and contributes choice keyboard and alto saxophone parts to the mix. The core quartet sit strong at the heart of these new recordings, and their tight and tough playing really anchors the proceedings, allowing the album’s guest soloists to soar: guitarists Chuck D’Aloia and Eric Finn, keyboardists Adrian Cohen and Mike Kelley and tenor sax player Brian Patneaude all offer stellar spots throughout AARP Go the Weasels’ run. The Steely Dan analogy holds, with traces of Frank Zappa tossed into the mix for good creative measure.

As great as these performances are, they’d be squandered on inferior songs, but that’s never a worry on AARP Go The Weasels, as this long disc offers some of the group’s finest AARP backcreative moments. The album opens with the stellar “Father Weasel,” which updates Lewis Carroll’s classic poem “Father William” for the 21st Century: where Carroll worried about his aged protagonist’s penchant for headstands and somersaults, Fun’s Father Weasel offers his young interrogator wisdom about sexual potency among the elderly, along with tips regarding regular bowel movements and estate planning. “What Says Creep” and “Freemason Reese” update demo cuts from 2000’s Generation Xcrement album, while the closing pair of “Wailing Song” and “Doubting Thomas” stand tall among the Weasels’ most evocative depictions of the human (and post-human) experience. You could build a modern religion on the latter two songs, and it would be as compelling as many other creeds currently recruiting candidates in 21st Century America.

AARP Go the Weasels also includes the band’s politically astute 2010 single “Do The Teabag,” which offers a surf-rock synopsis of a particularly unfortunate modern right-wing American political movement, while “Zucchini Park” fairly takes a hammer and chisel to the left wing version of political populism, circa 2012. “Last Supper on Lark Street” provides a blissfully acute skewering of what passes for high cuisine experiences in many contemporary hipster dining establishments, as the mandolin-fortified “Invasion of the Body” turns an alien invasion scenario into something credibly mundane and real. There are over half a dozen other songs on this disc of equally revelatory and insightful quality, making AARP Go The Weasels a truly masterful snapshot of the political and popular memes that define our (sad and terrible) modern era. If you find yourself despairing at the world you live in today, this album provides a tremendous opportunity to skewer the unskewerable, with aplomb. You’ll be a better person for listening to it, carefully.

At bottom line, I don’t gush about this album as a former citizen of Albany, nor as a current Des Moines denizen. I praise it as an exceptional artistic statement for listeners of all stripes and from all locales, and encourage you to snap it up as essential listening from a truly great band who deserve wider acclaim than they’ve received to date. Here’s a link to the first of six planned videos from the new album, the media skewering “A Friend in Tweed.” If this isn’t the best antidote to “little man, big head” syndrome that you will see in 2013, then I can’t imagine what is.

Great music, great songs, and great social commentary . . . what more do you want from a great album in 2013? Watch for it in my “Best Music of 2013” list come December, likely near the top spot.

Interview with The Weasels (1998)

So there are band interviews. And then there are band interviews. And the surreal-rockin’ Weasels are a close-knit bunch have spent so much time together over the years that injecting an outsider in their midst is almost guaranteed to produce one of the latter.

“We started working together in the late ’80s . . .” begins guitarist-songwriter Roy Weasell as we watch Beavis and Butthead in the cozy basement den next to the control room at Delmar’s Big Saucy Sound Studio.

“Mid ’80s,” interjects keyboardist-producer (and Big Saucy honcho) Chris Graf.

Singer-lyricist Dr. Fun rides in on that interruption’s slipstream. “I was at Rumrunner’s and I read an ad in the paper that said sax-slash-keyboard player wanted . . .”

Weasell counter-interrupts: “Remember when you used to play keyboards?”

“And remember when you used to play sax?” adds Graf . . . and the Weasels’ conversation carousel is off and running, with three separate voices symbiotically processing the story as if they were a singular entity.

“So I borrowed a quarter from Andrea the bartender and called and these guys were playing in a band . . . this was about ’84 or ’85 . . .yeah, it was before I went to law school, so it was a long time ago . . . and I started writing tunes around ’88 . . . I did a lot of them on four-track but wiped the vocals off when Fun came in and wrote the first batch of lyrics . . . and some of that early shit is on the fourth CD in our new box set . . . is ‘Red Meat’ on there? . . . no, that’s not on the original tape . . .’Red Meat’ was from Morris Street . . . that was a hot fucking summer . . .we were on the second floor, right down from Valentine’s . . . we wrote a bunch of tunes, but we were so delirious because it was like 1,000 degrees in there . . . we had this eight track . . . no, a four track . . . no, we had my brother’s reel-to-reel . . . no, I didn’t use that . . . yes, I know there was a reel-to-reel involved . . . okay, right, the reel-to-reel . . . and anyway, that’s how we got started.”

Got that? Good, because there’s more. After a few years’ worth of basement work, Fun, Graf and Weasell submitted one of their tapes to Metroland‘s EarJam competition in 1992. The Metroland judges were so impressed by The Weasels’ eclectic offering that they invited the group to play live as one of four EarJam finalists — despite the fact that The Weasels didn’t exist as a performing ensemble.

Undaunted, The Weasels made their concert debut that fall with a rented rhythm section. And while they didn’t win the EarJam competition, The Weasels did earn positive feedback from Albany’s concert-going cognoscenti while also road-testing the cabal of supporting musicians who would help flesh out their ensuing albums: Meat The Weasels Volume One: Fondue Cabaret (1993), Leon’s Mystical Head (1995) and Uranus or Bust (1998).

Fun, Weasell, Graf and keyboardist Adrian Cohen (the fourth core member through Uranus or Bust‘s production) will again be enlisting helpers for a concert at Valentine’s tomorrow (Friday) night. This rare live appearance will celebrate both the release of their new rarities album, Generation Xcrement, and the public inauguration of former Caged Monkey guitarist Matt Pirog and off-and-on collaborator Jon Cohen (Adrian’s bass-playing brother) as official members of the Weasels’ creative collective. This new six-piece line-up is already at work on the next studio album in their Delmar basement hide-out.

Despite the decade separating Generation XCrement‘s oldest and newest cuts, the fundamental, underlying premises of recorded Weaseldom remain fairly consistent throughout the package’s four discs. “I think one of the neater things about what we do is that I write some sort of pretty-ish material that can lure you in,” explains Weasell. “But once you’re in, then we cut your throat.”

“It works on different levels,” agrees Fun, whose literate, poetic and eccentric lyrics provide much of the karmic bad juju behind the group’s throat cuttings. “I mean, I write my lyrics by finding little bits of things that appeal to me; I write them down and save them. And then at some later time I’ll extrapolate a whole lyric from one little thing that I found. As an example, in the song ‘Red Meat’ there’s a line that goes ‘this is not a sushi bar.’ And that’s a line that I got while watching The Rockford Files: Rockford walks into a bar to meet this guy and there’s a sign on the wall that says ‘This is not a sushi bar.’ So I wrote that down and saved it . . . for two or three years.”

Weasell and Graf both laugh aloud at this revelation. “If I sound surprised about some of these references,” Weasell offers once his chortle has passed, “It’s because I am. Back in the early days he’d just send me the lyrics and I’d write the music. And now sometimes I’ll write the music first and he’ll write the lyrics to the music — but for me to know that this song fits with this lyric, I don’t have to know what’s going through his head . . .”

“Thank God!” Fun erupts. “Actually, though, I think that’s why we’re so good at what we do: we don’t collaborate. He writes the music and he’s great at that. I write the lyrics and I’m great at that. And Chris records the music . . .”

“And I’m mediocre at that,” Chris interrupts, modestly.

“But this is what we do,” concludes Fun. “It’s a part of us now. If we were to never make a penny doing it or never play Shea Stadium, we would still do it because it’s our art. It’s what we do and, in a certain way, it’s what we are.”

And for the first time that night, no one interrupts, denies, corrects, appends or laughs.