Frank Zappa only recruited the best players into his band, as there were exacting standards expected of any musician who passed through the Zappa band ranks. One of those was guitarist Mike Keneally, who having since had a long and varied solo career as well as stints with Dweezil Zappa and Devin Townsend, here teams up with Scott Schorr, another multi-instrumentalist, and a producer of some note, who arranged, recorded and engineered the album in New Zealand and Australia, where he is house producer for the Australian label Lazy Bones Recordings, hence it being the label for this outing.
That pairing was always going to be a class act, and so it proves, with this quirky yet full on instrumental album that takes a many-spangled trip through various styles, all held together with an elasticity of imagination one would expect of a pairing like this. The consummate musicianship displayed by this symbiotic duo on their debut album puts me in mind of Mats/Morgan, another duo with a Zappa alumnus in its ranks. Whatever you may think of Uncle Frank’s sometimes wayward contributions to popular culture, musically he was a genius, and it cannot be denied that he served as a steep learning curve and a stepping stone for several tremendously talented musicians.
We kick off with Liquid and Fumes, which leaps fully formed from your speakers like it’s already been going for five minutes, and from its first bars tells me that this album is going to be a diamond. The tune fires a connection in a rusty synapse in my noggin, and to me it takes the theme from Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station and turns it uppity-down, filtering it through a hazy psychedelic gauze, and landing it on a gnarled and spiky guitar interjection from Mike with only one wheel of the undercarriage down. About as exciting as a first track gets! Next up, after turning your limbs into jelly to the funk of You’re Not the Boss of Me, you may be tempted to use your scapula as spatula, as you will no longer have a use for it.
On Johnson Figleaf, a title that for UK readers will have off-putting “cannot be unseen” connotations, our intrepid duo are joined by bass maestro Tony Levin, with whom Scott Schorr has a long history, having acted as producer on a fair number of projects Levin had a part in. Mike is known for his meaty electric guitar work, but he’s no slouch with an acoustic either, as this track highlights.
Although the album effortlessly switches pace and intensity of arrangements, sometimes within the same track, there is an undercurrent of funk moves swirling through it all. A gorgeous soundscape like Call of the Corn carries this message to morph into something thoroughly nice’n’sleazy, with sci-fi synth and alien animal calls taking it up a dark alleyway you’d never suspect from its opening section. Clever and consummately musical, this album never gets predictable.
The way the tracks are put together, with various looping and multi-tracking used to create themes, reminds me of some of Bill Nelson’s work, although MFTJ has a less esoteric and spectral air about it. This is a working record, it has dirt under its fingernails. The three short pieces leading up to the final track sum up the variety and fun on the record, the funk making a big return on Elevation Day, which shimmies across the stage in a big suit to a splendidly phat rhythm, including a short but sweet and marvellously off-kilter guitar break from Mike.
At ten seconds under six minutes, the closing Prostate 911 is the longest track on the record, its title a concern for men of a certain age, but there is nothing flabby about it. A building repetitive figure of fulsome instrumentation weaves a simple theme while Mike’s increasingly crabby guitars start scuttling up the walls as the angst breaks cover, eventually fading away into the distance. Classy stuff!
Some albums leave you thinking, “… well, there’s something where the ambition exceeded the talent”, but that definitely does not apply here, the talent and the ambition go skipping off down the byway of progressive music hand in hand as star-crossed lovers do. There are no deaf men playing Theremins on this record, and no classical references were brutally murdered in plain sight, it’s simply two guys at the top of their respective games sparking ideas off one another as they swap files across the Interwebs.
The only disappointment is that they give away that the acronym “MFTJ” stands for “Mankind’s Final Traffic Jam” on the Bandcamp page, and there was me hoping it was “Mary’s Fulsome Tomato Juggling”. Oh well, you can’t have everything…
If you have read this far, I interviewed Mike Keneally as a tie-in, which can be found HERE.
01. Liquid and Fumes (3:36)
02. You’re Not the Boss of Me (2:58)
03. Call of the Corn (5:40)
04. That Crawling Sensation (4:00)
05. Bitchy Hawk (3:59)
06. Johnson Figleaf (4:54)
07. It Was Delicious (3:37)
08. Elevation Day (2:50)
09. Magnificent 17 (2:53)
10. Prostate 911 (5:50)
Total Time – 40:20
Mike Keneally – Guitar, Bass, Piano, Noises
Scott Schorr – Drums, Percussion, Keyboards
Tony Levin – Bass (track 6)
Record Label: Lazy Bones Recordings
Countries of Origin: U.S.A./Australia
Date of Release: 10th March 2020