Rating:In a surprise to virtually no one, oddball extraordinaire Les Claypool claims a childhood obsession with Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. What’s far more surprising than Primus covering that iconic 1971 film’s soundtrack now is that they haven’t already done so. Claypool has made a career of leading listeners through the unpredictable twists and turns of his aural laboratory of offbeat concoctions. So it’s only natural that what started as a one-off New Year’s Eve confection by Primus would be stretched like taffy into a demented boat ride of an LP, no golden ticket required.
Covering Willy Wonka is inherently gimmicky, but Claypool makes sure to pull out all the stops. The album is the first featuring the classic lineup of Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander in 19 years. To make the effort that much more robust, Claypool taps a couple frequent side project collaborators as his Fungi Ensemble: percussionist Mike Dillon and cellist Sam Bass. Live shows have featured actual Primus chocolate bars in Mr. Krinkle, Professor Nutbutter and Bastard Bars varieties. There are even reportedly five golden records circulating out there.
But is Chocolate Factory any good? Anyone unfamiliar with or uninterested in Primus probably won’t give too much thought to these off-kilter reworkings of songs from the classic film. In interviews, Claypool has made it clear that he understands the inherent peril of taking on such a sacred cow. But those listeners whose minds easily recall the lyrics to “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” or “Tommy the Cat” will feel right at home in Chocolate Factory.
The album more or less follows the chronology of the film, even though it’s not quite an exact song-for-song cover of the original soundtrack. “Hello Wonkites” slinks to a start with ominously quavering strings, and as tinkling vibraphone enters, it’s clear that there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction Primus is going. “Candy Man” keeps things on the dark side, with Claypool both snarling and rising up into his rushed carnival barker cadence as a droning cello note calls out in a bovine bawl. But lighter moments are also featured early, with gently plucked guitar counterbalancing clanging metallic percussion on “Cheer Up Charlie,” where Claypool sings as though he’s a distant cousin of Kermit the Frog.
Much as they do in both the original film and Tim Burton’s more recent Roald Dahl adaptation (a film that Claypool has declared “unwatcheable”), the Oompa Loompa interludes wear out their welcome pretty quickly. Four tracks worth is simply far too repetitive, even if they each run well under the two-minute mark. Repetition also ultimately sinks the latter half of the madcap “Golden Ticket,” with Claypool barking the titular phrase ad nauseam. With its loping pace, “Pure Imagination” has the most Primus fingerprints on it, with goofily throaty voices, Claypool’s trademark gooey bass lines and all manner of tinkling percussion. Meanwhile, “Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride” begins with what is by far the eeriest instrumental sequence, though once the vocals chime in, it’s clear that nobody could rhyme about a frightening boat ride more effectively than a deranged Gene Wilder.
With the Flaming Lips recent cover of Sgt. Pepper’s, there’s no shortage of musical novelty lately. Rather than trot out a whole host of guest stars, Claypool was wise to utilize his Primus core and a few familiar collaborators. The result pays homage while also putting the band’s own unique stamp on a classic. Chocolate Factory is tasty for Primus fans, if not altogether easy to swallow.