Underappreciated and understated metaphysical comedy music comes in strange forms. This is one of them. With words by singer John S. Hall and music by guitarist Dogbowl, beefed up by Kramer’s production and auxiliary musicianship, New York’s King Missile (Dog Fly Religion) produced two uneven yet insinuating records of bellicose nubbins concerning the secret guilts and torments of modern lowlife scum. On the original band’s two albums, Hall’s black humor meshes nicely with Dogbowl’s more romantic inclinations; when the latter departed, he took the parenthetical portion of the moniker with him. (Both LPs are contained on a single cassette; the They CD adds two bonus tracks to the basic 20-song menu.)
Post-partum, Dogbowl cranked out Tit! (An Opera), an ambitiously skanky (although decidedly non-operatic) collection of scratchy, wistful love ditties that ooze by on a tide of guitar, cello, organ and Hawaiian lap steel. Kramer produced and performs on Tit!, but not on Mystical Shit, where Hall steps to the fore, joined by Phantom Tollbooth/Bongwater/B.A.L.L. guitarist Dave Rick and When People Were Shorter keyboardist/bassist Chris Xefos. The revamped King Missile sounds more focused than before, with the humor coming off as conceptual rather than jokey. And Hall, who deserves a good chunk of the credit/blame for spearheading New York’s electric poetry movement, has a new-found penchant for monologuish material and shaggy dog stories (see “Gary & Melissa,” detailing a couple’s sexual explorations, and “Jesus Was Way Cool.”) The Tit! cassette contains seven bonus tracks; the Mystical Shit CD contains Fluting on the Hump.
In a quizzical pre-Nirvana bout of major label alternaweird enthusiasm, Atlantic signed King Missile, who made The Way to Salvation as a quartet (using drummer Dave Ramirez, on loan from Hypnolovewheel) with strong musical ideas caroming between Rick and Xefos. Their inventions — propulsive, but shaped as much for loosely structured soundtrackery as verse/chorus song form — are custom built for Hall, whose singing and talking are equally rooted in dry self-amusement at nothing in particular. His prose is less poetry than truncated and smugly pointless short stories; amusing but ill-suited for repeated spins. The closest the album comes to pop transcendence is “My Heart Is a Flower,” a thick guitar’n’organ summer-of-love psychedelidrone which Hall recites as if he were auditioning for an off-Broadway play. (Incidentally, the randiness suggested by the title of “Sex With You” is a joke, which Hall erodes by adding to his short list of primal needs over Rick’s wah-wah wailing.)
Happy Hour nails it. In songs like “Detachable Penis,” “The Evil Children,” the comically exaggerated film fandom of “Martin Scorsese” (“I wanna chew his fucking lips off and grab his head and suck out one of his eyes and chew on it and spit it out in his face and say thank you for all of your fucking films…”) and the let’s-have-a-riot whaddayagot? anomie of “It’s Saturday,” Hall’s surreal accounts have the vivid sense of purpose previously absent; he’s not aiming at eliciting wan smiles, he’s trying to provoke intelligent thought. Meanwhile, the band (drummer Roger Murdock is that new face in the booklet photo) locks into diverse rock grooves that would be worth hearing even without the vocals. Excellent.
Losing sight of the line between nonsense and rubbish, Hall indulges in elliptical word games on King Missile and — thanks to his imploring whine, bored condescension and forced contrivances — winds up sounding like Jerry Seinfeld fronting They Might Be Giants. The music is unassailable (Rick does his part with several hair-raising noise-fuzz-wah-guitar solos), but — with the exception of “The Dishwasher,” an extraordinary multi-leveled evocation of the post-stress syndrome crime-fearing urbanites endure daily — the album draws close to self-parody. Aiming to scuff away the vocals/music division and reintegrate a regular wiseass rock group from the pieces, King Missile shoots a hole in its soul.