Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 emigrated from Iowa in the mid-’80s and set up shop in San Francisco. Since then, they’ve become one of the most original, interesting collaborative groups of musicians in rock, locating and exploring the common ground between Can, Captain Beefheart and the Carpenters. The core group of Brian Hageman (guitar, mandolin, many other instruments), Mark Davies (guitar, banjo, many more other instruments), Hugh Swarts (guitar) and Anne Eickelberg (bass) has been together since the beginning, originally with Paul Bergmann and later with Jay Paget on drums; everybody sings. Sometimes they sound like misfit kids putting on a music (and variety) show, other times like a crack orchestra of unearthly devices.
Wormed by Leonard, a self-released cassette named after Leonard Nimoy’s book of poetry Warmed by Love, is the band’s most delicate recording, showing an early folky vein. “Hell Rules” suggests a nuttier John Fahey, with its soft vocal interplay matched by the instruments. Other pieces, like the intensely overmodulated anti-convoy song “Truck Driving Man,” break with any kind of tradition. They’re taking both their aesthetic and their limitations seriously here. The CD reissue appends some compilation tracks and very early rehearsal tapes; the four best songs from the album are picked out for The Natural Finger, a 7-inch EP that includes “Hell Rules” and the melancholy western “Narlus Spectre.”
The self-released Tangle includes a lot of similar songs, but with a noisier, meaner tone. The pendulous shifts in guitar sound and a complex train-chug of collective force are punctuated by any of the following: broken chords, keening choruses, accordion, trumpet and spoken bits. “Sister Hell” became something of a college radio hit.
Lovelyville is one of the Fellers’ jokiest records, going so far as to include a cover of Sugarloaf’s “Green-Eyed Lady.” Dark and absurd, it points to the ’70s childhoods of TFUL282 as an influence on their music. Hageman’s vocals dominate the record; the lyrics he sings, with their visceral surrealism, are not enhanced by elocution. “Nothing Solid” is an epic closer to the main body of the album, as the band clusters together, chanting and tunelessly shouting the chorus. The CD includes an eight-song “sub-album,” The Crowded Diaper: petite songs smothered by automatic writing via tape recorder.
The double-length Mother of All Saints, the kind of record for which the word “sprawling” was coined, documents TFUL282’s meandering period. There are songs here, but they’re fewer and further between than on earlier records. Thirteen of the 23 tracks are hypnotic instrumentals and found noises (as with Lovelyville, there are samples from, and allusions to, the infamous Raymond & Peter tapes of drunken, brawling roommates). There’s a sleepy sensibility, excess everywhere and few concessions to “entertainment” — the only conventionally catchy melody comes from Hageman’s viola on the instrumental “Star Trek.” Lyrics move with dream-logic and hover around images of disease (“Infection”), small creatures and smothering physical entrapment (“Fish Bowl,” “Hummingbird in a Cube of Ice”). The sound of the album is so dense and strange that it takes quite a few spins to get into and resists the listener almost every step of the way.
The English Where’s Officer Tuba? EP was originally meant to come out before Mother of All Saints, but didn’t show up until a little later. It mostly consists of tracks from the album, with the significant exception of a cover of Caroliner’s (oops, Caroliner Rainbow Open Sore Chorale’s) “Outhouse of the Pryeeeee,” which originally appeared on a 1991 split single.
Admonishing the Bishops (a euphemism that also alludes to the Bishop brothers of the Sun City Girls, with whom TFUL282 did a national tour) is the Fellers’ most straightforward record: four songs, no noise, no instrumentals, no experimental stuff. “Hurricane” is one of the best things the band has ever recorded, a six-minute piece with a confidently atonal riff and a six-line lyric about stasis that turns, brilliantly, into a yodel. “Undertaker” is TFUL-ized rockabilly; “Father” is a pop variation on Caroliner’s basic songwriting approach. The group’s ensemble playing is on a new level: even “Million Dollars,” the only song here that doesn’t quite work, has some strikingly inventive passages.
The Funeral Pudding also has four new compositions (one of them an exotic spy-movie instrumental, “Flames Up”), but the resemblance ends there. It also has five improvised jams recorded at the band’s rehearsal space; unfortunately, Thinking Fellers are no Can. Their strength is writing and arranging songs, like the two astonishing Eickelberg vocals here: the clinkety-clankety “Waited Too Long,” on which she deftly conflates the voices of a frustrated little girl and a bitter middle-aged woman, and “Heavy Head,” with lyrics that appear to be about depression and gorgeous music that appears to be about staying calm in the face of the void.
The improvisations on the subsequent full-length Strangers From the Universe are mercifully brief, basically just bridges between songs. And what songs! Berserk rhythms are presented with deadpan simplicity, like the sickly funk riff of “Socket” that keeps sticking a banana peel in its own path. The arrangements are unconventional and sometimes thrilling (Davies’ Optigan [obscure ’60s keyboard kin to the mellotron] intro to “Cup of Dreams” is particularly lovely). The lyrics have one foot in absurdity and the other in graceful poetry — check out the delirious rambling of “The Operation” or “The Piston and the Shaft,” a series of vaguely upsetting metaphors for sex. And Eickelberg tops herself with “Noble Experiment,” a blackly sweet waltz-time lullaby for the human race’s tenure on the planet.
The limited-edition Porcelain Entertainments begins with six live tracks recorded in San Francisco. Four of the songs appear in superior studio versions elsewhere (including a medley from A Fistful of Dollars, on a contemporaneous single). The other two are a formless jam and a great two-minute instrumental, “Quacky.” The album also includes four practice-space noodles of varying degrees of inconsequentiality and another set of solo pieces, of which Eickelberg’s Casio-on-speed “White Box” is the best. Hageman’s “52 Girlfriends” has incomprehensible lyrics by Sun City Girls’ Charlie Gocher. Illustrative, but really for completists only.
I Hope It Lands, on the other hand, is for everyone. The band has the miraculous group-mind of a flock of birds, and the record flows like nothing they’ve ever done before — even the little noise-twiddles are part of the record’s grand mid-air arc. So are the songs, which makes it hard to focus on individual ones. The album peaks at particular moments: the rhythmic gymnastics in the chorus of “Brains,” the bit in the slow drift near the end of “Triple X” where everybody suddenly bears down at once, the high notes in “Empty Cup.” Bonus points for titling one of the interludes “rampaging fuckers of anything on the crazy shitting planet of the vomit atmosphere” for no apparent reason.
The Japanese TFUL282 compilation isn’t exactly a greatest-hits — it steers clear of the band’s most familiar songs in favor of album tracks that got overlooked the first time around, reassembling them in seemingly random order. It’s got five tracks apiece from Wormed and Lovelyville, six from Mother, three from Tangle, one each from Admonishing the Bishops and The Funeral Pudding, two from Strangers and — making its fourth appearance — “Trevor.”
Mr. (Brian) Hageman’s solo album, Twin Smooth Snouts, is a little simpler than full TFUL282 music and also less accessible. He usually uses one or two contrasted or combined sounds (as opposed to the Fellers’ four or five), retaining the band’s loose, detuned string sound; his lyrical imagery is cryptic, thick and vaguely country-ish. He mostly sings in a monotone, and his instrumentals drag on (great titles, though: “Johnosaurus Wayne,” “Shave the Gum,” “Hamburger Pharmacy”). There are some nice touches, like the sound of a vibrator, erhu, car radio and metal rod, and creative stereo separation. “Rosa” transforms a traditional Cuban melody into a bar-room ballad.
Going under the name the White Shark, goofier, odder Feller Mark Davies (wears skirts, plays banjo) is behind the Muggy Bog EP. A cheerful and complex musical vision, its wry lightness is based on the oddness of ordinary beauty: the chorus of “Waiting for the Day” is “doing the dishes, scrubbing the dog, getting out of bed and going to work” (of course, the day he’s waiting for is the Apocalypse ). One song is sung from the point of view of mosquitoes (“We suck blood as a means to survive”); “Sodium Chloride” is a mini-musical about a man addicted to salt. There are also extraneous covers of Rod McKuen and Burt Bacharach.
The Fellers have developed an extended family in the San Francisco scene that centers on Bananafish magazine (run by unofficial sixth Feller Seymour Glass) and the Nuf Sed label (run by unofficial nineteenth Feller Brandan Kearney). The consistently great Nuf Sed cassette compilation Not All That Terrifies Harms includes a handful of tracks by TFUL282 and related bands, both celebrated (Caroliner) and unknown (the Lockhorns, whose piece is called “Eickelberg Reign O’er Me”). Six tracks from the tape were later released as the 7-inch EP of the same name, including TFUL’s “Trevor” (in a slightly different version), the White Shark’s horribly creepy “This Is Emergency” and “The World of Sound” by Fellers personal-band-mythology joke the Enablers. There’s also a blow-out cover of the Blue Öyster Cult’s “Dominance and Submission” by World of Pooh, with Kearney and a pre-Fellers Jay Paget.
A book collecting the first four issues of Bananafish includes a CD, Step, Step, Steppin’ on Satan’s Foot, with solo tracks by Swarts, Davies, Bergmann, Paget, Eickelberg and Hageman (among many other things). Various members of the band have also recorded singles with their side projects. The best are Job’s Daughters (basically Davies and Kearney, with a seven-person chorus including Swarts: their rapturous cover of the Cowsills’ “The Prophecy of Daniel and John the Divine” is something of an underground classic) and Heavenly Ten Stems, a septet also including Kearney and Davies that played covers of Asian film music and kicked up a huge cloud of tribute/minstrelsy controversy in the process.