By the sounds of it, this Brooklyn threesome, who met at Brown University, make their open-ended backyard music as if they’d read the instruction manual backward and then set out to translate it into a foreign language. Drummer Hanna Fox, guitarist Tim Thomas and bassist Rosalee Thomson (all sing) don’t do anything as obvious as don different genre attire on their records, all of which are pretty well rooted in the advanced precision of jazz-pop eccentricity. No, where Babe the Blue Ox opens the floodgates is in the second-to-second diversity of its invention. As one small illustrative example, the debut’s “Booty” careens along on Thomas’ urgently whispered vocals (“a baptism of jism/through the prisms of ism”) over a spastic skeleton of firmly held fusion-factory art-funk complexity — until it turns a corner with a knock-knock joke and launches into shouts and a wriggly electric drive-by, a two-line refrain at a completely different syncopated rhythm and then a spare instrumental bridge. No hyperkinetic video game could run through as many different landscapes in three minutes, and certainly not with such provocatively clever lyrics as “National Geographic”: “I didn’t recognize the mom of the world/Til I saw her global fridgerator covered with boys and girls/From thousands of years, spanned all countries and races.”
(BOX) can be remarkably entertaining. “Chicken Head Bone Sucker” finds a stunning common ground between the Butthole Surfers and King Crimson; “Spatula” digs a groove between Basehead and Soul Coughing; “Born Again,” Thomson’s ironic self-help screed, is roaring punkish fun. But the album is also exhausting, with challenging tempos, overcaffeinated tension and music that does everything imaginable to avoid stepping into a simple melodic structure. Although a fascinating animal that merits further investigation, Babe the Blue OX is not the easiest creature to wrap your arms around.
For most of the encouraging six-song Je m’Appelle Babe, the trio focuses the skittish mania of its presentation while maintaining the feverish level of think-tank activity. “S’Good” actually has a regular-type chorus; “Tattoos” and “Agent 6950” are almost normal enough to play safely with the other children, while “Everybody Want$ You” sets Thomas’ own wordplay against a relatively straight rendition of the 1982 Billy Squier hit. But any presumption that the trio’s artistic resolve might be softening evaporates in “Spin the Bottle,” a disturbing Adrian Belew-meets-Devo space exploration.
Establishing a band habit of borrowing titles from Barbra Streisand LPs, Color Me Babe pushes through to a new, more accessible plane of Babeness. Without giving any artistic ground, the thicker rock textures, bolder melodies (and singing) and a notch less restlessness conspire to hammer typically oddball ideas like “Ego Pimps,” “Axl” (Fox’s womanly dig at the rude rock star), “9/10” and “Health” into inviting shapes that sublimate instrumental arm-waving for less stimulation and greater satisfaction. The distraction level rises from moderate to intense as the album proceeds toward “There’s a Hole in the Crotch of My Work Pants,” but the folky “King of the Rain” — despite some adroit noise-guitar incursions — is unabashedly lovely, vivid proof of the tender human heart driving this vigorously cerebral corps.
The move to a major label did not go unnoted by the trio; while retaining enough confusion-is-sex extremism here and there, People is Babe at its most straightforward and ingratiatingly rock-like. (Another view would call it calculatingly commercial, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here.) Sounding unnervingly like the Presidents of the United States of America at times (most pointedly on the tense, bass-heavy “Can’t Stand Up,” “Rube Goldberg” and the explosive “Family Picnic”), the album peels away the band’s difficult exterior for such best-behavior charmers as “Breathe,” “Stand by Your Man” (no, not that one), the sweet-sounding/sour-tongued “Memphis” and Thomson’s gorgeous “Wake Up,” which could pass for a lost Lisa Loeb single. If People attracts new fans who won’t care much for the band’s trickier back catalogue, it’s clear that the same wry intelligence and highly individual musical ambition is at work both here and there.