If simplicity is a virtue, then Ethan Buckler must be a saint. The Louisville native (and Squirrel Bait alumnus) has clearly pored over the gospel according to Jonathan Richman, but the manner in which he evolved from nascent noise-rock demigod to prince of the sort of pop that would be as comfortable in a pre-school or nursing home as a smoky bar room is truly unique.
When Buckler formed King Kong in the late ’80s, his objective was to get back to rock’s true roots — which he perceived as the blues. As a result, Old Man on the Bridge seldom strays from traditional blues structures or subject matter — aside from pillaging the Stones’ catalogue for a serviceable rendition of “I’m Free.” When Buckler and his cohorts (bassist Darren Rappa and drummer Rich Schuler) grind out their own take on the music, it’s a friendly, front-porch version redolent of the bluegrass country surrounding their home base: “Lifesaver Blues” breezes along with nary a hint of strife, but “Business Man” gives off just enough “Yankee go home” reticence to ring true.
King Kong then underwent a rethink as drastic as anything since the Modern Lover swapped tales of psychotic co-eds for evaluations of what really does make the ice cream man tick. With its herky-jerky rhythms and kitschy organ flourishes (by newcomer Britt Walford, the drummer of Slint), Funny Farm bears more than a passing resemblance to the B-52’s’ early days — an analogy furthered by the decidedly Cindy Wilsonized vocal harmonies Amy George drizzles over “Island Paradise” and the frankly touching “Dirty City, Rainy Day.” It’s Buckler who really steals the show, however, with his deadpan delivery of such Rain Man-worthy sketches as “Uh-Oh” and a title track that rings uncomfortably authentic.
Me Hungry regresses even further. A concept album that seeks to explore the inner caveman in all of us finds Buckler stripping down his communicative abilities to little more than grunts and monosyllabic prattle (“Me scared, me excited…must climb tree”), while Amy Greenwood (née George) provides a real-time aural libretto. The shtick can get tiresome, but when the backing tracks groove (as on “Animal” and the agreeably goofy “Beastie Bear”), it’s possible to suspend disbelief. Still, if you’ve seen Clan of the Cave Bear, there’s probably little need to climb into this wayback machine.