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Holy Hell! California Turns 20

Holy Hell! California Turns 20

California is Pet Sounds with the mic pointed at the goat’s asshole.

California is Pet Sounds with the mic pointed at the goat’s asshole; it’s a parody of the transcendent pop epics of the ‘60s that, deep beneath the layers of cynicism that mask its puppy-dog heart, aspires to compete with them. The final chord of “Goodbye Sober Day” parodies “A Day in the Life,” but when the harmonies hit on “Sweet Charity” they mean business. The opening of “Air-Conditioned Nightmare” wants songs like “Little Deuce Coupe” for their Golden State superficiality, but when Mike Patton gestures “from the skyscrapers down to the submarines” on its latter half, it’s that same sweep, that desire to encompass all of existence, that drove Brian Wilson’s doomed fantasies. “Pink Cigarette” has the rudest ending of any rock song in history, but it wouldn’t work if sounds that hurt the heart hadn’t burst forth from Patton’s five-octave throat mere seconds earlier. Genre parodies like this are a dime a dozen, but California would be empty snark if not for those moments that genuinely wound.

California is a war between two attitudes from two different decades. The ‘60s saw rock ‘n’ roll’s full flowering into Art when the hippie movement, Eastern mysticism and the bittersweet revelations of psychedelic drugs led to a desire among youngsters to create pop that pined for the truth of the universe. The ‘90s was the moment when that generation’s hungry progeny rifled through its trash, digging up bargain-bin obscurities and bits of cultural detritus to repurpose them with a wink and a nod. Within California is the same appreciation for the filigreed and florid that drove the Shibuya-kei movement, the oeuvres of Stereolab and Jim O’Rourke, the bachelor-pad wine-and-cheese of Air and the trip-hop movement. There’s also the same potty-mouthed prankster irreverence we see on shows like Ren & Stimpy and Beavis & Butthead, not least because all three are imbued with the spirit of Zappa, the first rock ‘n’ roller to lift toilet humor to the level of high art like Duchamp used to do.

The vibe of ‘60s transcendence is basically a ruse. Find some big chords, a lot of harmonies and some acid koans and you’ve hit the heavens. It isn’t that different from aiming for weirdness, and most bands aim for one or the other. Not Bungle. One of the band’s big draws is how they cycle through genres most rock bands won’t even touch, which isn’t impressive on its own unless it makes sense. Listening to “None of Them Knew They Were Robots,” it’s easy to be gobsmacked by how many musical ideas they run through even in six minutes, how each idea reprises at the perfect time, how Patton’s fierce apocalyptic narrative starts with and deftly winds its way back to that alarming blur of organs and… is that a mambo beat? How, just when “Ars Moriendi” seems to reach an obscene peak of throw-everything-in-your-face confrontation, they add an alarm, and then stop, as if the song itself had a heart attack and croaked?

Most bands start by writing cute pop and then get weird. Mr. Bungle followed the opposite path. The band’s puerile 1991 debut represents the worst of the post-grunge killer clown aesthetic, pointing to the nu-metal movement whose dark carnival Patton ushered in with his early Faith No More work. 1995’s Disco Volante was richer and occasionally dazzling but still lacked much depth beyond willful bizarreness, and its most poignant song was cheekily titled “After School Special.” What California adds is a heart on fire. It doesn’t downplay its emotions but blows them up until you feel the wince of beauty as deeply as the jokes. There’s a song on California called “Vanity Fair” that’s sung by an adherent of the Skoptsy, a nineteenth-century Russian cult whose members castrated themselves. The important part isn’t that he’s cutting his nuts off. It’s that when they fall off, he sees God.

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