It’s that time of the week, so grease yourselves up and get on into the Thunderdome- it’s time for Album WAR! This week, drum guru Dale Crover’s, Fickle Finger of Fate takes on the surf-adelic Guantanamo Baywatch’s Desert Center as we decide which new release won the week in music!
Fickle Finger of Fate
Joyful Noise Recordings
Dale Crover has birthed one wild beast with the Fickle Finger of Fate.
The Melvins drummer and wayward Nirvana stand-in takes center stage as he helms an extensive album of twenty seamlessly banded tracks that run the gambit from experimental prog, stoner doom improv, folk rock, and more, with Crover’s seasoned percussive intuition carving out Fate’s singular Fickle fingerprint. Tracks like “Little Brother” are stunningly accomplished radio-ready rock numbers that harkens back to Stone Temple Pilot’s better days. However, this standard fare proves the illusion with the track bookended by alienating and experimental “The Short Con” and “Tiny Sound”.
It may only be fourteen seconds, but “Our Fearless Leader” employs a marked terror in its disorientating wake. Fitting of its title, the album’s tracks share an unpredictable nature that can provide comfort in the sleepy “I Found the Way Out” only to steal it away with noisy hiccups and fits of abject chaos. The Fickle Finger of Fate points to a cold, ungovernable universe- one with a drum beat.
The instrumentals lean on Crover’s strength as a drummer to no small effect. Banding the tracks together and bleeding them in and out of more structured compositions allows for percussion to lead the narrative without the risk of exposing limited range. Crover’s versatility is not by accident. Whether subtle or a sea change, there is a disciplined effort to effect multiple styles and genres without appearing schizophrenic across the breezy album.
All twenty-six seconds of “ Giant Hunka Cake” runs like a drunk horse on busted cobblestone but its inherently fun. The exercise dares the audience to go with Crover, escaping into these brief interludes into the unknown. Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason composed a similar suite of songs for 1969’s Ummagumma. Crover’s Fickle Finger of Fate and Mason’s “Grand Vizer’s Garden Party” share the same unpiloted air that allows for amazing tracks like “Fickle Finger of Fate” and “Thunder Pinky” to follow immediately after, kicking in the doors of perception after the preceding experimental numbers have already widened the doorways.
That the album closes with a fiddle scratching out that unmistakable “shave and a haircut, two bits…” bar apropos of nothing somehow makes all the sense in the universe.
Standout Track: “Thunder Pinky” A brief respite of skuzzy barroom rock. Think Tom Waits drinking gasoline while riding a motorcycle backwards.
Suicide Squeeze Record
Nothing quite captures the middle ground to America’s Venn diagram of crass commercial and its perpetual war-on quite like the name Guantanamo Baywatch.
A perverted Wheel Of Fortune puzzle answer, Guantanamo Baywatch is surf rock that strayed too far into the desert before going native. Their sound on Desert Center is as much a twisted postcard of baby boomer Americana nostalgia as their name. Far from cheap mimicry or outright appropriation, tracks like “Conquistador” and “The Australian” do Dick Dale and Link Wray justice and could just as easily be the needle drop track in the next labored Tartantino film.
There’s something else here, too. Something just below the surface, a knowing nod, a subtle wink that the beach isn’t how you left it. There’s a measure of danger in tracks like “Neglect” and “Mesa, AZ” that allows for twenty-first century fusion by way of integrating surf into modern compositions, rather than reverse-engineering a contemporary sound into a kitchy period-piece novelty act.
Surf music has always enjoyed a balancing act. If Southern California is its center, its poles are Vegas and Hawaii, and it is all too easy to tip over, leaning too heavy into an Elvis routine. The two extremes of the genre are played with to masterful effect on Desert Center, sometimes all in one track like the stellar “Conquistador” opener.
“Interlude #1” consists of thirty-one seconds of a chuckling old man saying “Happy Halloween” and comes out of left field. “Interlude #2” is somewhat more fitting with its vintage static-y pop culture samples, but both bear the burden of extemporaneous padding. Unlike Crover’s eccentric additions to Fickle Finger of Fate, here, the curiosities derail the road trip. After the brief detour, the drive picks back up in earnest with the subsequent “Witch Stomp” and the perfection that is “Blame Myself” which sees the band step out of their comfort zone into more contemporary heavy pop rock waters with full-throated aplomb.
The difficult field genre-specific bands have to navigate comes in the amorphous nature of their instrumentals. From serviceable to stunning, three fourth of the way into an album it can be all too easy for surf rock to go from hanging ten to treading water. Back end tracks like “Area 69” skirt dangerously close to proving a generic facsimile of the tracks that precede it. To their credit, Guantanamo Baywatch counter this potential malaise at every turn. “Blame Myself” find success in the effort while “Video” is something of the ugly stepchild of the entire album.
The world is in short supply of hard traveling music, quintessential road trip albums that invoke the ghosts of the American past. Whether real or romanticized, the high water mark of the 60s cultural epoch crests in Guantanamo Baywatch’s reverb soaked Desert Center.
Rating: 3.5 out 5
Standout Track: “Conquistador”: The thesis statement of the album and a rollicking start to a great album. Such a spot-on Dick Dale homage one could easily mistake the two.
Winner of the Week: Dale Crover – Fickle Finger of Fate
Both releases are fascinating dives into specific disciplines reinterpreted and are worth multiple spins. Whereas Guantanamo Baywatch brought us back to a past reimagined in their image, Dale Crover brought his past into the present, delivering a Frankenstein’s monster culled from his years in modern music. Of the two, Crover stretches to much greater lengths and at greater risk without a band to diffuse potential critical contempt. His effort is much more raw and objectively uglier than what is found on Desert Center and it is in this very unpredictability and unpolished assault that finds the Fickle Finger of Fate, ultimately, a more rewarding listen.