Atlanta’s Big Fish Ensemble is one of the best relatively unknown pop bands in America. The Georgia group’s laid-back music combines snatches of folk, rock, country and blues, adding a lyrical slant that mixes satire and an exaggerated kind of peculiar populism that goes back to the tall tales of the rural South. Now and again, hints of Talking Heads, Velvet Underground, Camper Van Beethoven and other intellectual popsters surface in their sound, but Big Fish is its own ensemble, and both the group’s musical prowess and the cleverness of its tunes have grown by leaps and bounds over its first five years.
The Big Fish Ensemble began as a loose, improvisational Athens trio (quickly a quartet, later to add horns and other instruments) known as Big Wall of Shit; their self-declared goal was to offend fellow law students. By the late ’80s, that group’s Leigh Finlayson (bass, bass clarinet, trumpet and vocals) was at the helm of a “regular” band. Five multi-instrumentalists allowed the group to range far and wide in the indulgence of their unique eclecticism. Paul Schwartz sang and played guitar and trombone; Sheila Doyle handled violin and bass; main songwriter Michael Lorant (who, like Doyle, has contributed instrumentally to Indigo Girls albums) was the drummer as well as a vocalist and acoustic guitarist; David Clair provided guitar, sax and vocals.
Originally recorded as a demo, Field Trip is crammed with absurdist humor, high intellectual concepts, real melodies and impressive chops — imagine Talking Heads fronted by Dan Hicks. Despite its humble beginnings, the album has no shortage of memorable moments: a hallucinogenic cowboy ballad (“Way Out West”), a tune about alienation and pretensions that sports a Bacharachish horn chart (“Young Artists”) and a cynical rocker (“Message From Ferdinand”) that could keep company with the best work of XTC.
I Hate Parties includes material that predates Field Trip, songs considered too happy or too goofy. The wit and musicianship is sharper than on the debut — no mean feat. (The Indigo Girls sing harmonies on “Animal.”) The title track sounds like a falling-down-drunk frat anthem — until you listen to the words. “I wish I’d stayed at home and watched TV / I hate parties more than anything.” Other potential hits: “Greenland” (a string-drenched bit of cynical Anglo pop), “Amy No” (a fatalistic lament accented by Doyle’s mournful mountain fiddle), “Bad Driver” (a chooglin’ ode to the dark side of the road) and the cheery “Where the Fuckheads Roam.”
David Clair left the band just after recording the quietly quirky Lucky, which follows the Big Fish template, although the subject matter is more downbeat and the music bluesier. Songs explore the wreckage of failed relationships, and dead end lives fueled by booze and bad luck. But there’s more: “Robert” is a doleful tune that limns Dole’s spinelessness, “Devil” gets into the mind of a paranoid right-winger and “Sunday Morning” delivers a typical secular humanist’s nightmares about religion with plenty of metallic crunch. The Indigos lend their pipes to the harmonies on “City of Sin,” another sad tale of futile love, while Kelly Hogan (ex-Jody Grind) sings on “Blue Streak in the Fire” and “Some Heroic Punk.”
Released three years later by the remaining four (Doyle, Finlayson Lorant and Schwartz) and produced (as usual) by Lorant, State Bird of Big Fish Ensemble maintains the lyrical disquiet from the very first lines (“If they put her in a box, how would they know / When it was the perfect time to check on her / To see if she was done?”) but lets the music succumb to an equally unsettling normalcy. Sure, strings and horns and woodwinds find their way into the occasionally impassioned electric guitar exertions, but too much of the album passes without leaving a strong flavor, quirky or otherwise. Songs about Frank Sinatra and Amelia Earhart feel rote and uninspired. “Goodbye Mister” achieves a tense Roxy Music- like pulse with chirpy female backing vocals and “Dog-faced Boy” starts off a bit like “Ca Plane Pour Moi” but gets derailed in a frenzied guitar solo, and the likable pop tone of “Normaltown” is too, well, normal for a band that has achieved so much more.
Raze the Duds, a sprawling two-disc leftovers and live compilation (with video content), is far more entertaining and invigorating, containing as it does everything from covers — of “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” “What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding”) (with the Indigo Girls) and “I Am Woman” sung by the late Benjamin (Opal Foxx) — to you-get-the-idea originals like “Anthony’s Fish Grotto,” “Bango Bullets” and “Lobelia” (about a dead cow). The inclusion of a phone message from Jonathan Richman seems unworthy, but otherwise this unselfconscious scrapbook from a band that has obviously valued its own entertainment first and foremost is bursting at the seams with lowbrow fun delivered with highbrow intelligence.