Mofungo’s frayed vocals, twitchy rhythms and snarling saxes are an acquired taste but, on Out of Line, the quartet — formed from the ashes of New York no wavers Blinding Headache — does an excellent job of preventing discordance from descending to chaos. The urgent attack of “Wage Slave,” “FBI Informer (He Sold His Soul)” and others never lacks the credibility that eludes many fancier bands. Hard on the nerves, though.
Frederick Douglass furthers Mofungo’s drive into annoyingly random sounds and pointedly political lyrics. Willie Klein’s guitars and producer Elliott Sharp’s occasional sax contributions wander off in the most haphazard directions; the rhythm section isn’t exactly session-level tight, but at least bassist Robert Sietsema and alternating drummers Phil Dray and Chris Nelson keep a semblance of the beat going between them. Unlistenable.
Dray’s departure (and vocalist Heather Drake’s temporary arrival) prior to Messenger Dogs of the Gods was accompanied, evidently, by a total sonic rethink, leaving Mofungo a rhythmically loaded, occasionally jagged, folk-rock group. Sharp, now a full bandmember, still blows wall-rattling sax and triples on guitar and keyboards. Palatable, even pretty in spots, the album includes such American classics as “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” alongside original instrumentals and topical songs like “Johnny Didn’t Come Marching Home,” “The Typist’s Plea” and “George Washington Carver/Sojourner Truth.” Humorless but estimably well intentioned.
While the uncommon blend of folk, jazz and rock on End of the World, Part 2 shows steps in the right direction (Sharp finally seems to be bowing to the chromatic scale here), Mofungo’s lyrics are getting so didactic that they require a helpful paragraph of footnotes (about aircraft, a remark made by Baby Doc Duvalier, etc.) on the back cover. The varied and intricate music is a lot better than the wavery sub-Tom Verlaine vocals, but this album is still only for intelligent listeners with the patience to survive the band’s unpolished and prickly exterior.
With now-dated lyrics about Judge Bork and Oliver North, and a Sietsema essay explaining such irrelevancies as the band’s fear of aluminum and annoyance (now there’s a gutsy political stance) at Cardinal O’Connor, Bugged is still Mofungo’s most appealing and accessible record, a tuneful and tight set of real songs built more on collective chord progressions than anarchic instrumental assemblies. Actually, when Sharp wraps his lips around a reed and sets off for the moon at the start of Face 2, the momentary chaos is bracing but welcome amid the pleasant rock and old-time folk surroundings.
Work thankfully omits the monograph, but that’s the best thing about this lyrically conceptual collection of labor songs. In a total rejection of Bugged‘s listener-friendliness, Work returns to unmelodic noise mode with lunging hunks of discontinuity, pointless rhythm shifts, atonal vocals and cacophonous bits of sonic ephemera running roughshod through the tracks. Although covers of Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Alfred Reed and the Minutemen provide brief oases of musical reason, Work is a chore to avoid.