When vinyl records made their return as one of the foremost music media at around 2014, a lot was discussed regarding the difference in the sound and fidelity of vinyl and pretty much everything else on the market, at the time. It was an exciting moment; vinyl sales went up 280 percent from what they’d been in 2009. Everybody was either listening to vinyl or downloads, but vinyl had become so omnipresent again that patrons began to forget about how much higher the fidelity of the format was, and what that meant regarding the possibilities for what they could hear from it. A reminder of those possibilities and the difference between this gloriously analog format compared to its digital counterparts has been issued on the “Gratuitous Red” pressing of Paul Leary’s Born Stupid LP.
As soon as stylus catches groove and the title track of Born Stupid swaggers out to open the A-side of the album, listeners will be able to recognize the difference between this release and all of its digital counterparts; the country-inspired percussion, rich acoustic guitar, phase-effected electric guitar and the sighing background vocal all blow in like a warm Texas breeze and present a sound and vision which are simultaneously rootsy and otherworldly – a fact made inescapable by Leary’s own doubled and robotic-sounding vocals. Listeners will find they’ve been by how lush and beautiful the sound is, but also how fucking weird it feels; there is no doubt that some listeners will be put off (or thrown off-balance), but others will recognize and relish in what they’re hearing as a perfect return to the weirdness of Paul Leary at his best. It is, very simply, a good and weird moment – and a great one to begin this album.
After “Born Stupid” lets out, the A-side’s running doesn’t straighten out or get less weird, as it goes. “Would You Like To Eat A Cow” capitalizes on the unusual tone set by its predecessor and accentuates it with icy guitar tones ventilating out of one channel and countrified, carnival-esque sounds from the other to arrive at a wholly unsettling concoction which satisfies the sentiments of the song’s lyric sheet (calling milk a cow’s “glandular secretions” is as simultaneously correct and bizarre in the song as writing it out here was) as well as feeling more playful than it really has any right to – and that, in turn, perfectly informs the dark/frightening/frenetic vibe which powers the song that follows it, “Sugar Is The Gateway Drug,” as well. There, Paul Leary bounces along like a kid on a spectacular buzz bouncing along deliriously in an inflatable carnival installation (a bounce house) and manages to make the effect sound both exciting and sardonic as it beautifully accentuates the bright surfaces and dark corners all along the way through the song.
After “Sugar Is The Gateway Drug” exhausts its presence, Leary does touch on some territory once inhabited by Butthole Surfers during the time of Hairway To Steven and Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis with “What Are You Gonna Do” in that the guitars play a more incidental role around the stomping drums, and the vocals cease to resemble anything other than dangerous, terrifying and drugged out mantras (seriously – the refrain of “What’re you gonna do” sounds like a tape-manipulated sample of Hulk Hogan in the 1980s – it’s totally frightening and insane); in effect, the cut sounds more than a little like an acid flashback to the Surfers’ glory days in that it’s rudderless and terrifying.
Because of the turn that “What Are You Gonna Do” takes toward the more chemically induced regions that the Butthole Surfers used to travel in, it somehow makes perfect sense that Leary would investigate some of his old songbook – and and the first turn toward that is a reinterpretation of “The Sha Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave” – completely re-imagined and re-interpreted as “The Shah Revisited,” which closes Born Stupid‘s A-side. Now thirty-eight years after the song was originally released, longtime fans may be relieved to find that Leary’s musicality has very clearly improved since the bad old days (now smoother, more musical and less jarring, the song just weirds listeners out by upping the amount of whirly, big top-inspired organ in the song’s composition and sounding like a thoroughly haunted carnival barker has stolen the mic), but the song still manages to sound passively psychotic. Such an achievement is remarkable, really – particularly given that Leary has managed to make the song more accessible and listenable here; at one time, punks used to love getting the shit scared out of them by the Butthole Surfers (and they still may – if the opportunity ever presents itself again) but, now decades after the fact, that Leary proves it’s possible to re-fold the paper onto which “The Shah” was written and make something far more decorative and ornate is absolutely remarkable. After the song plays out and the needle lifts, listeners will find themselves completely energized to tackle the B-side of the album.
There’s no question that the re-emergence of “The Shah” from mothballs will leave listeners’ energy running high as vinyl is flipped and stylus is reset, but the guitarist exceeds expectation with the amped-up cow-punk workout that is “Mohawk Town.” On “Mohawk Town,” Leary sort of reaches for the dramatic nonsense that Butthole Surfers touched upon with “Cough Syrup” (on Electriclarryland) but includes a more “country epic” vibe for smiles and then returns to the carnival for “Throw Away Freely” (which works well enough, but features slightly less impact than the similarly bent cuts which appeared on the album’s A-side) before really wasting some time with the instrumental “Gold Cap.” Happily, the guitarist saves the B-side from sinking and drowning early by returning to his Butthole Surfers songbook and repurposing “Gary Floyd” (which used to be a gloriously obnoxious rock song) as an upward looking, almost atmospheric ballad. Longtime Surfers fans will find the dubious grin that their faces contort into when they find that Leary has in no way altered “Pee Pee The Sailor” (a long misplaced Leary song from his period with Bad Livers, later covered by Meat Puppets) when it begins to play as the final cut on Born Stupid a perfect note on which to end; “Pee Pee” is absolutely a bizarre little song, in any language, but it also happens to play perfectly, in this context; it’s offbeat but totally non-threatening, and so leaves listeners with the good sort of taste in their mouths that will make it easy to enjoy repeated runs through the album.
So, needless to say, Born Stupid holds up well and does the unimaginable – it surpasses any and all expectations. How does one qualify an album as strange as Born Stupid,” you ask? The easiest way to say it is that, after a decades-long hiatus from recording (both as a solo artist and as a charter member of the Butthole Surfers), Born Stupid illustrates definitively that Paul Leary has not lost is touch in his ability to keep one foot securely planted in rock classicism, with the other one planted proudly on the lunatic fringe. Born Stupid is good, it’s weird, it’s fun and it’s good weird fun.
And he had better not wait long to follow this one up, damn it. [Bill Adams]
Hellbound.ca – Paul Leary – Born Stupid – [CD review]
Born Stupid is out now. The “Gratuitous Red” pressing of the album is already sold out, but copies of the “Stupid Yello” pressing of 10, 000 copies remains in print, as do CD copies and downloads. Buy it here, directly from Joyful Noise Recordings.