Originally from Bowling Green, Ohio and now based in Champaign, Illinois, Proof of Utah has no Utah connection at all. The name’s just a phrase co-founder Louie Simon overheard in a conversation — but what kind of conversation was that? The band’s records are left-field in much the same way: musical and lyrical banalities transformed via unexpected juxtapositions into deliciously deadpan whimsy. To liken them to Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, the Residents, Brian Eno, Talking Heads and Devo is an ultimately misguided impulse, and the bases for such comparisons are mostly pretty general: POU use (or subvert) a variety of musical styles, and seek out strange sonic textures. They incorporate radio snippets (or simulations thereof); recite, or talk-sing, in homely (sometimes funny) voices; their lyrics are nothing if not off-the-wall.
Simon (voice, drums, tapes) and co-conspirator Mike Brosco (aka Bosco: voice, guitar, bass, synths, tapes) were, with some guests invited at the last minute, the group on POU’s debut album, a consciously eclectic collection of styles somewhat primitively performed. Starting with the second album, Brosco and Simon acquired three sidemen, contributing sax, keyboards, harmonica, etc.
Each side of It Doesn’t Matter Much starts with a dopey, seemingly mundane ditty that’s just a little bit off. Then things get weird. There’s tuneful guitar rock with oblique lyrics, a bizarre tone poem, an offbeat jazz tune. It’s all pretty goofy yet ingratiating; even amid some of the silliest bits, striking sounds and lyrical images emerge. Happy to Be Here is a tad more varied, and the weird stuff is definitely weirder. Some of it isn’t all that odd: an ode to corn dogs (“On a Stick”) is a rockin’ little hoedown. But then “The Wedding Song” alternates wacky rapid-fire verses with mutant dance-rock, and the sax-laden “Mamba” has four different tempos (“movements”?) in succession; its “lyrics” are a guest couple speaking in foreign languages.
Out of Order is the rockiest album, especially the first side; new listeners may find this the most accessible. It’s pure coincidence that several of its tracks are among the band’s best: the rocking lope and curiously evocative nonsense lyrics of “The Pointed Lady” and the dense, tense, intense rock of “Mr. Summer.”
Free and Female returns to the antic assortment, though it also has some rockin’ sides. “Death of Italian Acrobats” intones typically skew(er)ed POU lyrics over Big Brother’s “Combination of the Two” as interpreted by the Banana Splits on drugs; “Forks or Blades” is a boogyin’ little commentary of sorts on the state of radio. But it also includes a self-parodic quasi-jazz “tribute” to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (“I Love Ice Cream”).
Despite their intellectual leanings and occasional concerns about the dark side of human relations, POU albums possess an innocent, almost childlike sense of wonder and even happiness (irreducible to some pat intellectual formulation). Each has so much going on that it takes more than a few listenings to catch it all. Happy to Be Here, Out of Order and Free and Female are all highly recommended to listeners with a sense of adventure, but virtually any POU is worthwhile. (One possible exception is The Belly’s Virginal Polylips, which consists of live stuff, outtakes and fragments, none of which exactly deserves to be on an album.)