Published Oct 17, 2014There have been over half a dozen drummers in Primus over the years, but it's widely accepted that the Tim "Herb" Alexander years were their best. He was there for Primus' debut, one gold and two platinum albums, all in the early to mid-'90s, which made the band a headliner in the golden age of alternative rock.
When Alexander left, the band started having less fun, eventually going on hiatus for a few years because of it. They reformed as a live band in the early 2000s, and played with Alexander for many years after that, but it wasn't until old-time member Jay Lane got back on the kit that their creative juices started flowing again and they returned to the studio. In 2011, they cracked the Billboard top 20 with Green Naugahyde, their first album since 1999 and highest ranking since 1995's Tales from the Punchbowl.
In late 2013, Lane left to continue his work with Bob Weir in RatDog, and Alexander was brought back into the fold. Merely having Alexander back behind the kit is a huge feather in this band's cap, but he seems to have brought with him the same creative spark that helped their first run of records speak to a generation. While Green Naugahyde did reasonably well financially — many critics saw it as just another Primus album — but no one can say that Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble is an easy cash grab. No band delivering a cover of the entire 1971 soundtrack to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is expecting riches, particularly since that movie was largely considered a box office flop. This is an effort of love.
The film, with its moralist tale wrapped in surreal, psychedelic absurdity, meant a great deal to Les Claypool, the band's legendary bassist and frontman. The covers are delivered with all the charisma and passion with which little seven-year-old Claypool must have felt when he first saw and became infatuated with the film. Sure, the songs are as zany as you'd expect, considering the Goblin synth line and reversing guitar outro on "Pure Imagination," the surf guitar and violin on "I Want It Now" that give it a gypsy swing vibe and a mooing guitar line and Zappa-esque percussion that draw out the dark undertones of "Candy Man," but there is a heartfelt earnestness that matches its inherent playfulness.
The arrangements are varied, employing the band's notorious kitchen sink mentality to interpret the sounds of the originals, and the vocalists show an impressive range of acting chops. Claypool vividly embodies the role of Grandpa Joe in "Golden Ticket" and hits Gene Wilder levels of insanity on "Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride," while guitarist Larry Lalonde nails the Veruca Salt tantrum of "I Want It Now." They even save the film's biggest downer: "Cheer up Charlie" had millions of kids reaching for the fast-forward button, but Primus make it one of the album's highlights, with Claypool sounding sweet on the track's demented, playful hook, alleviating the draining sadness of the original.
Primus don't merely say they are re-inspired with this record; they sound like it. This is a perfect match of old school talent and righteous inspiration. Frank Zappa couldn't have done a better job of covering this soundtrack. (ATO)