Trombipulation is a well-played and frequently interesting funk record that might be a rare-groove classic if it were made by any other band.
1980’s unloved Trombipulation is a well-played and frequently interesting funk record that might be a rare-groove classic if it were made by any other band. Maybe Shock G would’ve still sampled it for the “Humpty Dance” and it would’ve taken on a second life as a cratedigger cult concern. No such luck. Parliament’s last album for 38 years has the misfortune of coming at the end of one of the most impressive runs in pop, and it’s acquired the same reputation as the Velvet Underground’s Squeeze or the latter-day Pixies records: an embarrassment that’s conveniently located at the end of the band’s catalog, so it’s as easy to skip as the end credits of a video game.
Embarrassing Trombipulation is not. In fact, it speaks highly of Parliament that the band sounds so tight and enthusiastic given the turmoil and talent drain that plagued P-Funk’s latter years. Exhausting it is. This is the only Parliament record that leaves us wrung-out and haggard rather than exhilarated. Listening to it can be a little less like listening to a funk record and more like going to the museum on free day or enjoying the buzziest restaurant in town on a busy Saturday night. There’s plenty to look at and chew on, but only if you can tune out the distractions.
The mix is impossibly dense with vocals. There’s always dialogue on Parliament records, either explaining the band’s mythology or simply illustrating how weird and funky the music is with bawdy non-sequiturs. Typically, it’s easy to keep track of who everyone is; but not here. “New Doo Review” and “Peek-a-Groove” (nice whistle register, man, but could you shut up for a second?) play like shouting matches. An interesting aspect of Trombipulation is that female vocals are more prominent than usual, predicting the excellent work Brides of Funkenstein would turn out in the ‘80s, but you’d be forgiven for missing them given how much else is going on at any given time.
Trombipulation is the first Parliament album not to feature George Clinton as sole producer. Bootsy Collins is the boss here, playing many or most of the instruments on some songs. Soul vet Ron Dunbar contributes a few cuts, and Ron Ford’s classical credits suggest he’s the bright mind between the strings that pops up from time to time. The strings feel unnatural in the same way as Spector’s arrangements on Let It Be, another album released in the first year of a decade the band wouldn’t survive. There’s the sneaking suspicion Ford is using them as caulk to plaster over the gaps where the band members should be.
Let It Be is a great record because it’s true to the emotional ups and downs of the Beatles’ traumatic four-man divorce. Trombipulation seems willfully oblivious to the fact that it’s the end and tries to keep the parade going with a plastic smile. Nearly all the lyrics are entreaties to dance, as if the music couldn’t do the trick by itself. The absurd themes we find on most Parliament records are absent, save for the brilliant “Agony of DeFeet,” whose feet-and-shoes theme leads to an inevitable “toe jam” pun. They even retcon the Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk story; the enemy of all that’s funky has acquired a prehensile proboscis and intends to use it to out-funk the Clinton avatar Starchild. This story thread evaporates after two songs as the band slowly forgets why they’re even celebrating. And that fairly encapsulates this final installment in the Parliament’s run.