Friday, November 11, 2011

ALBUM REVIEW: David Lynch - Crazy Clown Time

By Steve Jones.

Crazy Clown Time is the debut solo LP from David Lynch, whom you may remember as the director of such films as Mulholland Drive, The Elephant Man, and Eraserhead.

Lynch's recent forays into music production shouldn't be too surprising.  As a filmmaker, his attention to sound design has been intense and exquisite ever since his collaboration with Alan R. Splet on the Eraserhead soundtrack (a highly recommended listen).  In fact, Lynch's films are just about as recognizable by their soundtracks as by their visuals or surrealistic style.  That fact, combined with what we have seen of Lynch's contributions to Dark Night of the Soul and Fox Bat Strategy: A Tribute to Dave Jaurequi, meant that David Lynch fans pretty much knew what to expect from this album: lots of weird, spacey '50s blues and rock jams.  We got that, and more.

The first single to drop, "Good Day Today," was a complete surprise.  Instead of some Roy Orbison emulation, we got a really catchy piece of electronic pop, driven by syncopated synthwork and Lynch's lightly vocoded vocals.  I liked it a lot, and it really got me excited for a full-length album.  As it turns out, "Good Day Today" is not very representative of Crazy Clown Time's overall sound, but it does highlight the use of electronic effects and deviations throughout these tracks, which adds a nice bit of flavor to what could easily have become a dull affair.

Make no mistake, this is an album that lives up to its title; it is weird, surreal, off-putting, indulgent, and quintessentially Lynchian.  These factors add up to a wholly enjoyable 70 minutes for me, but I can understand that opinions concerning this album are going to be as divisive as those concerning Lynch's films.  Its meandering and antiquated song styles drenched in reverb and voice effects are not going to be for everyone.  If you're already a die-hard David Lynch fan, that works in your favor, but an outsider may find Crazy Clown Time quite difficult to digest.

Even I, a huge fan of Lynch the filmmaker, was initially disappointed when I heard the album stream on NPR last week.  I really felt those 70 minutes, and it didn't help that many songs dragged on and on with little to no progression from a beginning to the end.  What I did love, though, was the way the tracks sounded.  I think reverb tends to be grossly overused by many contemporary artists, particularly those concerned with the chilly waves, but I love the way Lynch uses it in this album.  It's still laid on pretty thick, but I find it infinitely more tolerable here because 1) it is in the context of a different genre and 2) the obfuscation is used more so for dramatic effect, rather than pure psychedelia.  And even the fun psychedelic elements of this music are always tainted with some darkness or strangeness that, again, makes it more palatable for me.

The sounds hooked me, and the more I listened, the more Crazy Clown Time grew on me. Songs I once found monotonous became hypnotically engaging.  I actually ended up becoming more engrossed with the album than I had anticipated when its release was first announced.  I don't think David Lynch is a particularly good songwriter, and the simplistic repetitiveness of most songs here agrees with that.  But I do believe Lynch is an excellent storyteller and sonic craftsman, and that is more than enough to make this record work for me.

The title track, "Crazy Clown Time," is a good example of what I'm talking about.  Musically, the song stays pretty much in the same place, and the words are almost childish in their simplicity.  But the way Lynch delivers the lyrics turns it into this surreal bacchanale of sex and booze that would not be as effectively delivered with other complications.  Imagine a spoken word piece by a demented Laurie Anderson.  Similarly darkly strange narratives are found in "Pinky's Dream," "Football Game," and "Speed Roadster."

Whether or not you enjoy "Strange and Unproductive Thinking" is going to be directly proportional to how much you enjoyed David Lynch's ramblings on the Eraserhead DVD bonus feature.  Personally, I love the combination of a killer bass groove and monotone-vocoded discourses on transcendental meditation which eventually devolve into a discussion on oral hygiene.  Lasting through all seven minutes of that track would make for a good litmus test of how a listener is likely to react to the rest of the album.

Other highlights are the unexpectedly poppy sounds of "Stone's Gone Up," the pseudo-doo-wop swaying of the ballad-like "These are my Friends," and the psychedelic twang of "I Know."  But I especially like the unsettling moments of of the spidery "Noah's Ark" and the very fitting final track "She Rise Up," which takes a turn for the electronic and slightly industrial.  These tracks, along with "Good Day Today," are the kind of music I didn't really expect from Mr. Lynch, and I would love to hear him explore some more dark ambient electronica, while still retaining his surrealistic lyrics and overall charm.

The weaker moments of the album come from the instrumental "The Night Bell With Lightning."  It isn't terrible, but, believe or not, I found Lynch's voice to be an invaluable asset to this album.  Taking it away makes this track lose some of that spark that would have otherwise set it apart.  Also, "So Glad," just really doesn't do anything for me.  It's pretty much the only place on the album where I still feel that lack of progression and interest that plagued my first listen.

Crazy Clown Time is far from perfect, far from accessible, but it is also far from the kind of fluffy vanity project listeners have come to expect from celebrities-turned-musicians.  My overall enjoyment of this record comes down to the fact that I have heard nothing else quite like it.  It is funny that I have heard at least two albums this year--Timber Timbre's Creep On Creepin' On and The Caretaker's An Empty Bliss Beyond This World--that would have made great soundtracks to David Lynch movies, but this album by the actual David Lynch is still a wholly unique entity.  And, personally, I'd rather listen to something which is flawed and adventurous than something which is flawless but boring.

It ain't for everybody, but if you want to hear an album you're going to remember, you can't do much better in 2011 than Crazy Clown Time.

Score: Strong 8/Lite 9

What do you think?  Amateurish or avant-garde?

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