Fucked Up Friends

(Anticon; 2008)

By Justin Langille | 17 October 2008

My very first introduction to the dry-cured, sweetly flavored music of Tobacco was through his work with Pittsburgh pop monsters Black Moth Super Rainbow (BMSR). Around this time last year Aesop Rock had just dropped None Shall Pass, a circus sideshow of a record and one of his best efforts since the breakthrough Labor Days (2001). Through Aesop’s MySpace I saw that BMSR was opening for a bunch of dates on his tour. Being the MySpace slut that I am, I crept my way over to find out what kind of unkempt hippie collective had an album named Dandelion Gum (2007). I was immediately greeted by a combination of hallucinatory tape distortions, fuzzed-out keys, and jangled beats—the quintessential BMSR sound. I became an instant fan of the collective but it was the signature vocoder overdrive of Tobacco’s hymn-like lyrics that sealed the deal.

While Kanye West, T-Pain, and a host of other pop hustlers pimped their own auto-tuned meander out to the star-struck public last year, Tobacco was holed up in his native Pittsburgh sewing together what would become Fucked Up Friends. Touted by the artist, seemingly without the rest of the band’s affirmation, as the unofficial follow up to Dandelion Gum, this sixteen-song collection takes off into a different cerebral space than the beatific, mellotronic head phases of his regular gig. The playful harmonics and twisted melodic themes of BMSR are isolated by Tobacco in his lab and given thorough taffy-pulling, effectively stretching out time and space as we know it for as far as the eye can see. One in three adults will be addicted.

What makes Fucked Up Friends so appealing is the urgency of its escapist energy. From the very moment the needle drops the floodgate is opened wide for Tobacco’s maelstrom of accelerated sonic bombast; the deep, pulsating engine surges and shining synth notes of intro track “Sweet Trash” already act as a guide off course into his wayward retrofit territory. The first third of the album is a rocket ship ascending, towing (yanking) the listener up to Tobacco’s level of groove. The big, swollen hooks of “Truck Sweat” and “Hairy Candy” then numb the senses and equalize pressures while the buzzed out layers of syncopated synthesizer melodies on songs like “Hawker Boat” and “Yum Yum Cult” send one day-tripping, blue pill securely in hand.

Preceded by the plodding but hilarious interlude of “Get My Nails Did,” “Dirt” marks the midway point of the album and stands out as the highlight. Featuring guest raps by the venerable Aesop himself, this collabo breaks the “dreamier than thou” poise of the record and reveals an explosive dimension of genre blending inherent in Tobacco’s brand of controlled chaos. Aesop twists and turns on the dimes thrown down by Tobacco’s synth tweaks, jabberwocky-ing out a barrage of Joycian phrase. “Coyote commandant dine by the squatter’s dogs / Rot by the shaman’s ogling vomit a comet grog,” he bleats, “Overflood a levy hope it soaks the very roots / We animate the council as the topiary moves.” Some might say that this joint venture boils down to a pretty raw mix of each artist’s unorthodox styles, what with its loose cohesive theme (dust, dirt, and the colorful devolution of society) and wayward timing. Never mind them haters. The rough swing that these boys manage from their oddly balanced steezes is slick innovation.

Throughout the rest of the record Tobacco continues to toy with the time travel engage switch on his keyboard, taking the listener willy-nilly to the groove-soaked palaces of the past or the disembodied data streams of the future. “Gross Magik” and “Little Pink Riding Hood” are filled with the sonic signifiers of the same bygone eras of music that BMSR visit on record. Proto hip-hop beats combine with swaths of prog rock synth distortions, odd string section samples, and folky flute loops to create a neon storybook of sound for future generations to get down with. Time, you see, does not matter until Tobacco in his final stages relents and carries the hulk back to 2008 for some refined song structure (“Tape Eater”), break-beat pastiche (“Pink Goo”), and finesse that could only be summoned by a true contemporary throwback master (“Grease Wizard”).

If Tobacco’s artistic vision suffers from any ailment, it would be the noticeable stylistic uniformity that underlies the tracks. While this solo venture is a unique take on the sound developed with BMSR, his song structures and instrumentation are built-in with monotony, practically usurping the purpose of developing a creative solo project in the first place. Still, oversized hats off to Tobacco for constructing a work that can find a balance, though tenuous and garbled, between the mainstream and the freaked out. Welcome, all, to flavor cosmos.