Holy Smokes Talk To Your Kids About Gangs

[Skin Graft; 2006]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: math rock, complicated prog, confusing pop songs
Others: The Ladies, Hella, Chrome, Don Caballero

It's not very much fun, sitting around watching a friend play video games. Maybe they're not deliberately hogging the system, but they're just so damn good and their games seem to go on forever. But what if your friend knows all the secret moves and is able to do shit that you've never seen in your life? It's more interesting when unparalleled playing is a factor, but alienating, nonetheless. And it is with this pretense that Zach Hill returns with his Holy Smokes. Last time it was easier to give them the benefit of the doubt; Masculine Drugs came with an entire book, and one could almost mistake the convoluted ideas in the package for something too high-concept for the casual fan. Their sophomore effort, Talk To Your Kids About Gangs, throws phony conceptualism out the window and, without being too low-brow, embraces the chummy casual hangout. The artwork boasts tongue-in-cheek imagery that would make Huell Howser proud — how serious can they be? It's a relief after the impressive yet misguided Masculine Drugs, but it is like hanging with a friend and his video games.

Even given these circumstances, it's hard not to love another one of Zach Hill and friends' pet projects (of which there are many). His drumming alone is a treat on any release, and if you can hear it through the whirlwind cluster-fuck of ideas that is Talk To Your Kids, they are as impressive as ever. Needless to say, this is a posse of incredible musicians (featuring members of Hella, Pinback, The Advantage, and former Flying Luttenbachers, respectively); however, their virtuosity is not the center of attention here. Though their technical mastery is unquestionable, there is so much going on at any given moment, combined with murky production, that it becomes difficult to separate one instrument from another. There's usually a song buried deep within this wreckage, but it's difficult to tell where guitars stop and digitally processed tinkering takes over. This is the group that will try anything — a giant experiment in sounds that treats the best ideas and the most absurd ones with an equal amount of legitimacy. What comes out of this experiment is a cluttered mess of ideas, albeit an intensely creative one, and like any of Hill's releases, it's an obviously laborious effort. If you wanted to hear what these guys do when they're bored at home, here it is, but you must know that they're ambitious as hell even when they're goofing off.

Not bad for hanging out around the house. In fact it's pretty damn incredible; for songs that seem like half jokes, these guys still manage to impress. The songs are simple, but the sonic textures are so dense that it's impossible not to discover something new with each listen. Although framed in toss-off moments (most notably the Mose Allison à la The Who cover of "Young Man's Blues"), the middle third of the album is a surprisingly focused song cycle that flows without pause. I can give plenty of praise to these mathy, comic-book-loving, demented musical workouts, and theoretically this equivalent of hanging out with your friends on the weekend with a six pack should make for a promising release with die hard fans of the Zach Hill catalog.

1. The Big Picture
2. Too Many Wives (All You Need is Blood)
3. Pretty Much None of us Know Anything
4. Missed Connections
5. Don't Squab on God's Tracks
6. Young Accent
7. Upsidedown
8. Quantum Leaper of Los Angeles County
9. No Dice
10. If You Pull it Out, You Better Use it
11. Welcome to Say You're Welcome
12. Afternoon
13. I Wasn't Scared, He Couldn't Feel his Hands
14. Universe's N.A.R.C

15. Young Man's Blues
16. The Big Picture (Reprise)

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