Claiming the solitary influence of “Caroliner — the Famous Singing Bull of the 1800’s,” San Francisco’s Caroliner is one of America’s most original and difficult musical entities. Vaguely indicated by the tag “industrial bluegrass,” the vehemently indescribable band consists of futuristic Luddites in the moral center of an avant-garde for erratic minds, covering turf wider than all alternative rock combined. The wealth of material ranges from shrill musique concrète to believable theater tunes, all pointing back to cowboy songs heard on dusty Victrolas.
Behind an ever-shifting facade of pseudonyms stands the dictatorial “singer from Caroliner”; the band’s only predictable element is that each hand-packaged record will be credited to “Caroliner Rainbow something of the something something,” and will include a double-sided photocopied lyric sheet meant to be read along with the music.
Rear End Hernia Puppet Show introduces the basic Caroliner concept. Simple, repetitive rhyme-songs are formed around the bass, with embellishing bells, whistles and unpredictable vocals upsetting the proceedings in various ways. Images of madness, bad health, broken wagons, gamblers and raging earth spirits weave together the genesis of the heightened-awareness Caroliner world. Primary influences — the Residents, Throbbing Gristle and Tom Waits — are evident, but even those touchstones become faint points of departure for the bewildering mass of references that follow.
The band’s mindset is better elucidated on I’m Armed With Quarts of Blood; the album has a Grand Guignol pop-up and bits of hair, dirt and cockroaches glued to the cover. It begins with four hysterical locked grooves, which the liner notes recommend be listened to for a solid week each before pressing forth. Catchy ditties like “Corn Red Moon” and “Barrel Horses & Window Crackers” describe extreme remedies for problems of mind and farm as errant fiddles squeal and lopsided voices caterwaul. A violent and twisted euphoria of the imagination.
Rise of the Common Woodpile is Caroliner at its most accessible, radiating a ghostly prettiness in the midst of haunted squeaking doors and other dangers. The delicate synthesis of disparate and competing incongruities is a real achievement. “Burdensome Blood” and “Child Heart of Dirt Pump” are sweet but morbid bluegrass banjo songs rearranged as surrealist film scores, interrupted by immense slamming noises and assorted racketry. The band is at a creative high, and the next album benefits from the gold rush as well.
Some of the pieces on the clamorous Cooking Stove Beast were probably recorded at the same time as the previous two albums; indeterminacy, inconsistency and obscurity are among Caroliner’s habitual modes. Fuller of bellowing distortion and monolithic dirges, the record contains “Hannah’s Medicinal Tick Collection” among an unforgettable array of other disturbances.
Caroliner moves into a more mannered, less rocking phase with Strike Them Hard, Drag Them to Church. The lengthy title track is a suite of simple choral music, promoting the major thematic element of eerie organ alongside deep gurgling vocals, squeaky disembodied squeals and assorted groaning of a whole community of child-like phantoms. Eastern influences appear, the off-pitch erhu warble and buzzing sitar edging Asian-tinged aspects into Caroliner’s testaments of hard times in the Old West.
An undertaker’s organ and an idiot’s banjo team up with sitars, trumpets and shattering glass to forward the oral tradition of an insane agrarian society on The Sabre Waving Saracen Wall. Ragtime piano, mouth harps and a bossa nova beat enliven the confident ruckus. Exemplifying the Caroliner trick of letting a sound define a song’s content, a warbled trumpet toot inspires “Misery Pipe in the Fray,” a number about an inept military bugler who stumbles into victory from the brink of death. Steady beats, discernible melodies and intelligible vocals come and go amid the chaos.
The double-album Rings on the Awkward Shadow was purportedly mastered on antique wire-spool equipment, rendering a trebly monophonic din that suits Caroliner perfectly. The record’s extra length matches a return to simpler arrangements, jaggedly introducing the Oriental whistle burlesque of “Land Mace” and the somber meditations of “Sprillowed Sprawling Prediction on Our Future.” Abrupt electronic anachronisms summon the image of an alien presence on the prairie.
Without waiting for the world to recover from that double-whammy, Caroliner shipped Sell Heal Holler, sort of a history of 20th century music as performed by students from an insect elementary school. Minimalism, soul, noise, rock drums and digital blips form a subtle set of enjoyable nocturnes. “Air-Blasted Earth” seems to push along to the pulse of a distorted barking dog toy. With so much deliberate and unintentional button-pushing to digest over its first nine albums, Caroliner seems near its goal of covering over the outside world with its own enlightened universe.