Each week, the New York Times previews an album about a week or so ahead of its release date in its “Press Play” feature. Currently, they’re showcasing tangentially jammy funk outfit Lettuce, whose new album Crush, featuring the above cover art (which I consider somewhat unfortunate, but may very well end up on more than one end-of-year worst-of list), comes out November 6. So I gave it a couple spins, and here’s what I’ve got.
The opening track, “The Force”, comes out strong. It’s hard not to think Lettuce was trying to evoke Star Wars with the title, especially given—not sure if you’ve heard this—that there’s a new movie just around the bend. Given the sound and the vibe, it makes me envision an alternate-universe version of Star Wars where Lando Calrissian is a Jedi. I’m loving the staccato hits in the early breakdown. You could enter a room through a wall with this song. I don’t want to get my hopes up too quickly though, because sometimes Lettuce albums open strong but then quickly get super-boring, like Rage! (2008), which opens with the excellent “Blast Off” and then proceeds to crack off not one memorable track for the remainder of its duration. So I’m keeping my expectations in check.
That seems to be a good idea based on the next two tracks, “Get Greasy” and “Chief”. “Get Greasy” doesn’t actually get terribly greasy. It’s got a moderate amount of skronk but that’s about it. “Chief” offers some memorable organ work but little else.
After “Chief”, we get the first of four interludes, here referred to as “‘ludes”. Maybe to make you think of Quaaludes? They are kind of hazy. I’ll go on record now as saying I hate any form of occasional filler peppered throughout an album. I hate skits, I hate intros, I hate stuff like this. I can’t stand this kind of mess-around on albums. Would it really have hurt the album that much if you took these four interludes out and made it three minutes shorter? They’re wasting space and running up the track count for no reason. An album with 11 tracks looks and feels a lot less daunting to me than one with 15 tracks. Why did no one at any point in the process suggest that this was a terrible idea? Why did no one prevent this from happening?
After “‘lude 1”, we get our first long jam, the 7-minute “Phyllis”. Lettuce are sort of indirectly connected to the jam band scene, but they’re really better off the tighter and shorter they keep it. This track takes you to space, for sure, but it’s better as background fare than active listening. “Phyllis” also goes back to the problem I mentioned in my Explosions in the Sky post regarding instrumental titles. To me, Phyllis is an old-lady name. Even a Phyllis at the peak of her attractiveness is probably in her mid-40s. This song has got me trying to get into feeling a middle-aged woman’s vibe while I’m trying to leave the solar system. It just doesn’t mesh.
Next up is “Sounds Like a Party”. More like sounds like you got vocals and lyrics all over my instrumental funk. This is why I can barely listen to Orgone‘s newer stuff. This song is hot garbage. I’d rather be groovin’ deep in the pocket to some horns than listening to some guy sing “I got some weed if you got some papers / and if you want I got some vapors”. Heaven forbid we don’t keep a finger in that hippie festival pie in the least subtle way imaginable. This track sounds like a Time reject. No thanks.
Finally we get a track that can stand up to the high standard established by “The Force” in “The Lobbyist”. You’re thinking a political guy with the title, that means a guy in a suit, and matched to a song like this, he’s gonna be sharp and on point. Funk always does better when it’s dressed to the nines in dapper apparel. The horn section pounds those hits. That imaginary protagonist is lobbying the CRAP out of Congress. It’s a little bit samey throughout, especially the first half, but it’s the first song in a while to get me movin’.
“The Lobbyist” is the last song before “‘lude 2”. It’s like a commercial break between songs. I DON’T NEED IT.
Assuming we’re divvying the album up based on ‘lude placement, then part three of the album begins with “Trillogy”, another 7-minuter. Funnily enough, this is a fairly seasonally appropriate song. It’s groovy and spooky and it might slip comfortably into your Halloween party playlist tomorrow, if you can somehow manage to awkwardly cram a NYT-exclusive Soundcloud playlist in there. Some assembly is required on this song—you’ll need to insert your own acid tab from 2:15 to about 4:30. Being as long as it is though, this one once again meanders and gets a bit out of Lettuce’s control. It is consistently weird and haunting throughout though, I will give it that.
The next two songs are where the struggle to get through the album becomes real. “Pocket Change” has an unfortunate title that makes it sound like an above-averagely funky session outtake. It’s hard to pay attention to it until the saxophone kicks in. “The New Reel” is where I really started flagging; it’s got some cool riffs in isolation, but the whole enterprise is really withering on the vine at this point.
By the time “‘lude 3” rolls around, I start to think maybe I’m being too hard on these short little intermissions. I’m extremely baffled as to why they’re getting longer though.
We return from a third round of ‘luding to more vocals on the painfully generic “He Made a Woman Out of Me”. I can’t, I’m done. There’s only one more real song left, called “Silverdome”. Might as well…
Actually, “Silverdome” is really impressive. It hints at a direction this album might have benefited from going, the same direction another horn-centric group chose to go last year. I’m talking about the Budos Band, who, having painted themselves into a creative corner, largely abandoned their usual style and went full-on Iron Butterfly-type doom metal, but with horns. The approach resulted in the album Burnt Offering, and it really worked for them (though I can’t see it paying dividends a second time). This is exactly the kind of thing Lettuce needs to start thinking about if they don’t want to be considered a carbon copy of Galactic, pounding out 4/4 funk-101 for people who like to dance.
Instead of going out on the high note, Crush ends with “‘lude 4”, the longest of the ‘ludes yet at 48 seconds. This is not technically a ‘lude, because it is not inter-anything. ‘Ludes suck. ‘Ludes are rude.
Congratulations, Lettuce: you got the New York Times to take notice. Next time you get a shot at the limelight, don’t bore everyone to tears.
TL;DR — Hang on to “The Force”, “The Lobbyist”, and “Silverdome”, ditch the rest.