The last fifty years of rock ‘n’ roll can be distilled into two simple, universal laws: First, Keith Richards will never die. Ever. Argue all you want, but when all of us are long gone, Keith will be still smoking a cigarette and talking incoherently. And the second is that well-hyped “supergroups” will inevitably disappoint. From Blind Faith to the Traveling Wilburys, these bands never equal the sum of their parts and usually leave the listener asking, “Is that it?”
So comes the skepticism with which I approached The Grand Pecking Order, the debut album from Oysterhead. This first supergroup of the new millennium consists of Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, Primus bassist Les Claypool and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland. Formed in early 2000 for a single club appearance at the New Orleans Jazzfest, the group entered Anastasio’s own converted barn/studio this April to lay down an album of original tunes.
The Grand Pecking Order is an interesting collision but never quite gels enough to be called a true collaboration. The music falls prey to the greatest of all supergroup blunders: too many leaders. With three stylistically different musicians, all among the best of their genres and instruments, Oysterhead unwisely lets its members proceed with reckless abandon, rather than slowing to allow each style to influence the others subtly.
Oddly enough, the album’s first few songs make this collision of styles work surprisingly well. From the gritty rock of “Little Faces” to the driving-pop feel of “Oz Is Ever Floating” to the spacey funk of “Mr. Oysterhead,” the record begins with a three-pronged blast of enthusiasm. These three are definitely the highlights of the album, with Anastasio’s noodling dancing just above Claypool’s abrasive slap bass and the whole mix propelled by Copeland’s powerful beat (the hidden drive behind the Police groove).
But the album then descends into a mix of bizarre Primus-sounding heaviness (“Rubberneck Lions,” “Pseudo Suicide”) and light acoustic numbers (“Radon Balloon,” “Birthday Boys”). Instrumentally, these tunes are tightly arranged and the melodies surprisingly quite hummable. On many tracks, though, Claypool’s nasal, almost spoken-word vocals drone and detract from the overall musical quality.
From a production standpoint, the album is extremely complicated; the songs are saturated with layered effects and over-dubbed vocals. While this complexity keeps the listener on his toes, the accumulation of these little details often buries the melody, hides the interesting interplay between the instruments, and overshadows the extended instrumentals.
It will be very interesting to see how these songs evolve when Oysterhead hits the road this fall (a chance Yale missed when the band canceled its show at Toad’s Place in the wake of the events of Sept. 11). Fans can only hope they will be stripped of their excessive production, and the melodies will assume their rightful place at the forefront.
Regardless, The Grand Pecking Order is worth a listen, if only for its musical pedigree. Oysterhead takes a number of musical risks; although many of these experiments blow up in their collective face, the scattered moments of brilliance give hope for the supergroups of the future.