Unknown Instructors — Funland (2009)


Shakespeare had it right. You really can’t trust anyone that doesn’t appreciate music. All of our greatest thinkers eventually seem to come to the conclusion that we are only vibrations in the great void. Call it the Big Bang Theory, call it what you will, but how could one go through life closed to the most primal and necessary form of human expression?

I think we can all agree that 2009 has already been a son-of-a-bitch; but if you are open to it, just when you need it, out of left field comes a collection of tunes that cracks the rust on your brain pan, and that beat, Goddamn it, that beat …

Dropped into the late spring of our discontent, like a silver dollar dropped down an outhouse shitter, falls the third, and most cohesive, album from Unknown Instructors, an unlikely supergroup of sorts that push the boundaries of … well, everything.

On Funland, the planet’s premier punk rock rhythm section of Mike Watt and George Hurley consistently push each other in more and more complex jams supported by Saccharine Trust guitarist Joe Baiza playing at his most insectoid. Whereas Hurley played pretty straight-ahead on the last album, producers Baiza, Joe Carducci, and Dan McGuire saved the most Rashied Ali-inspired grooves for its follow up.

Recorded at the same time as 2006’s The Master’s Voice, Funland is no mere collection of second-rate tracks, but a cohesive work of art that follows a thematic surge. Of course, that theme is loose enough to include Pere Ubu’s père David Thomas wailing as if existentially wounded on Afternoon Spent At The Bar, Sunny; while elsewhere, poet Dan McGuire reprises his role as a modern-day Jim Morrison with a penchant for language rather than just whiskey and leather pants.

McGuire has an eye for the details of the less-than bucolic childhood that many of us aging suburban California kids can relate to. He remembers the forgotten places, the weed-strewn empty lots and trampled-down hurricane fences, but he’s not the only poet on deck.

Whereas Voice was a hard-charger right out of the gate with the swirling Swarm, Funland’s opening salvo is Maji Yabai (Japanese slang originally meaning something like, “Oh shit,” and morphing in recent years into something like “sick” or “bad,” but in a good way), an introspective Watt-spiel. This paints the scene in a peculiar midway twilight. The unmerciful heat of the summer sun has finally abated and that belly full of PBR and corndogs isn’t going to hold you. It’s time to make some decisions. As the buzz loosens its grip, you can opt to reinforce it with another flat cold one, or pop out to the car for something stronger.

Funland’s hard stuff includes a cover of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Frownland, welding its odd gravitas to the album’s own weird sense of bacchanalian carny freedom. In addition to Thomas’s unique contributions, artist Raymond Pettibon’s unexpected jazz-influenced rap on Lead! proves that his take on Voice’s Twing-Twang wasn’t just an anomalous laugh. Pettibon has a surprisingly direct and, dare I say it, swinging delivery that may just cause me to rethink my idea of him as a quiet, misanthropic artist; or someone you might meet working the ring toss. It’s good to remember not to confuse the artist with his art.

Funland is all about pushing the boundaries of what you think you know about these musicans, and like the famous Tilt-A-Whirl, if you don’t hurl, you just might have the time of your life.

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