Though not in all instances, art does require some degree of levity. The Dadaist juxtapositions of high and low, sexual puns and political commentary would eventually shape artistic discourse through the development of new linguistic possibilities, as much as Dada was anti-modernist. Music — even “art music” — is not without similar shaping from figures like John Cage, Mauricio Kagel, and the Instant Composers’ Pool, or in “rock,” musicians like Frank Zappa, Daevid Allen, and The Holy Modal Rounders. New York-based duo Talibam! (keyboardist Matt Mottel and percussionist Kevin Shea) is a contemporary study in the absurd, merging Zappa and Sun Ra with Krautrock, electro-rock, theater, and sketch comedy, and moving toward, as they put it to this writer in a 2009 interview, “the development of a new language.” With 25 releases in nearly a decade of existence, Talibam! have become ever more ambitious, playing in improvised excursions with reedmen Daniel Carter and Alan Wilkinson, noisemongers Peeesseye, and now bringing that “new language” to a musical/operatic (as Mottel puts it, “audio-comic book”) setting with trombonist/guitarist Sam Kulik and British graphic artist James Clapham.
Discover AtlantASS consists of a CD and graphic novel (illustrated by Mr. Clapham), which are complementary — Belly Kids had Clapham’s book developed to accompany the music. The disc is a 19-track, two-act exposition of the abduction of Franklin, fishing on the Hudson with his father, who is taken underwater by a Merman-like figure (Stinge) and shown the wonders of jazz, poetry, and sex while also using his newfound powers of musical genius (and a magic pink pillow) to eradicate the bestial forces of environmental destruction. Yes, it’s completely absurd, but not without grounding in contemporary reality. There is also an artistically interesting core; Kulik is a tremendously fleet trombonist who has studied the work of Curtis Fuller and Grachan Moncur III, and brings that post-bop facility to the music. Along with Mottel’s motorik, Ra-esque keyboards and Shea’s careening flow, this grounds AtlantASS in “tradition” as much as the context is full of juvenile high jinks. About the references, of which there are many: AtlantASS signals “Barley Farker,” whose ghost only Franklin can hear and who only seems to say the word “ass.” “Baby Seal No Rio” is a play on the Lower East Side venue ABC No Rio (which lampoons the Carla Bley-Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra), while LMCC is the squat where this entire thing was conceived. Some of the sillier songs and fragments (“When My Penis Goes a Ringing,” etc.) are culled from or relate to Shea’s solo project Sexy Thoughts, a drums-electronics-voice amalgam of perverse weirdness that, while imbued with potty humor, is sonically engaging. Not that knowing these references beforehand is essential to “getting” AtlantASS, but explanation might help to see it in the broader continuum of Talibam! and their work (and no real liner notes are provided).
Most of the pieces here are rather short, save for the 16-minute “Sluts on the Planet,” where Franklin’s tryst with the mermaid Celinda is mirrored in a lengthy trio improvisation surrounding Shea’s running “horny teenager” commentary (one assumes Kulik’s slick chortle is Celinda’s cry of pleasure). It does take relaxing one’s expectations to really immerse oneself in the world that Talibam! have created, because AtlantASS as a concept is challenging because the jokes are either ultra-inside or brought from pubescent lust. But as a “new language,” shock is a natural result of presenting drastic aesthetic change, as absurd as that language and its environment might seem. There’s an adage about Sonny and Linda Sharrock, where Ornette Coleman was witnessing a performance and asked point blank “are these guys serious?” Although wrapped in comedy and general forehead-slapping, Talibam! are completely serious in pushing artistic possibilities forward. To put it another way, as Franklin asks Stinga the German Mermaid, “Are you fucking kidding me, lady?” No, Stinga is not kidding.