To paraphrase Donny and Marie, this durable New York combo is a little bit Zappa, a little bit cacophonous punk. That combination makes its quirkcore expeditions either grin-inducing or grating, depending on one’s ability to stomach the unique vocal style of frontman Tomas Antona, whose high-pitched screech falls somewhere between Perry Farrell and Sparks frontman Russell Mael on the weed-o-meter. While it took the quintet a while to find its footing — the first two albums are little more than extended, grad-school fortified fart jokes — Alice Donut did develop a knack for sniggeringly malevolent tweaking of mainstream and underground mores alike.
A belated East Coast response to the Dickies and Redd Kross, the crude but funny Donut Comes Alive proves man cannot live by snot alone. The band’s gleeful vivisection of public figures as far-flung as Mason Reese and Joan of Arc is mean-spirited, but that’s a less fundamental problem than Antona’s insistently telegraphed punchlines. In case you didn’t grow tired of hippie lampoons a decade before, the band even takes the time to eviscerate Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.”
When the inconsistent production of Bucketfulls of Sickness and Horror in an Otherwise Meaningless Life falters, the sloppy guitar smear obscures everything but Antona’s voice. (As on the first LP, bassist Ted Houghton sings a couple of numbers, but his inoffensive strivings in that department aren’t much of an improvement.) The band’s targets here aren’t any more ambulatory, but at least most of them are contemporary (see “Sinead O’Connor on MTV”). The artily slurred guitar tones — which on occasion draw attention away from Antona’s yowl — are, however, a more effective conduit than the debut’s direct punk- pop.
With Mule, Alice Donut shed its juvenile skin to reveal tight, bracing musical intricacy and intelligently incisive social commentary, much of it specific to city life: “J Train Downtown: A Nest of Murder,” “Bottom of the Chain” and “Roaches in the Sink.” Tomas’ discovery of more listenable ways to express himself, coupled with the band’s vastly improved playing, makes the record challenging and invigorating. The dark vision running through provocative songs about death, religion, menial labor, urban anomie and man-induced genetic plague is powerful stuff, and the sturdy music backs it up with authority.
Although a temporary three-guitar front line occasionally lends an alterna-Molly Hatchet feel to Revenge Fantasies of the Impotent, the album benefits from Antona’s growing familiarity with composure. By lowering both the pitch of his voice and the tone of his rhetoric, Antona increases his slugging percentage considerably, connecting with full force on the sinuous “Telebloodprintmediadeathwhore.” The band even seems to have learned to work its irony meter, judging by the wacked-out instrumental version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (which supplants the sludgy guitar riff at the center of the original with Steve Moses’ slurry trombone). The quintet regresses slightly on The Untidy Suicides of Your Degenerate Children, contenting themselves with making silly noises and drawing broad caricatures of suburban losers. Moses, who’s also the drummer, shines on complex rhythmic structures like those underpinning “Untidy Suicides” and the Dixieland-screech “She Loves You She Wants You It’s Amazing How Much Head Wounds Bleed,” but most of the album recalls Frank Zappa at his worst.
Tongues are planted in cheeks even before the first note of the live Dry Humping the Cash Cow is struck — with stadium-volume crowd noise spliced in as a replacement for the CBGB audience that actually witnessed the show firsthand. The precision and pop-savvy of the band’s playing — particularly on the part of bassist Sissi Schulmeister — on songs like “Green Meat Stew” (a rewrite of the first album’s “Green Pea Soup”) and the previously unreleased “Hose” come as something of a surprise, as does the power mustered without the benefit of studio gewgaws. The electricity even pervades Antona’s surreal spoken-word shtick, in full effect on “The Son of a Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects on His Life While Getting Stoned in the Parking Lot of a Winn Dixie While Listening to Metallica.” A good introduction.
There’s nothing remotely subdued about Pure Acid Park, a daffily psychedelic set that incorporates everything from banjo and washboard to remarkably ugly spuzz-guitar into dour millennialist rants like “Dreaming in Cuban” (which allows Antona to revisit his heritage) and “Shining Path.” The band’s most focused and affecting release, Pure Acid Park crystallizes its maverick raving and boundary-pushing instrumentation with a thoroughness that poseurs like Perry Farrell could never imagine. Alice Donut broke up after playing its 1000th show in January of 1996. The following decade, the saga resumed.