What becomes of the musical packrat.
Chickasaw Mudd Puppies only existed for a brief time in the very early 90s, and were the sort of band that are just too unconventional to describe in terms of genre or band comparison. Like many bands of this nature, they slipped through the cracks, only releasing an EP and an LP before disappearing. I found out about them when I saw the video for "Do You Remember" on MTV's 120 Minutes in 1991, and was intrigued enough to dub a copy of their EP, "White Dirt", from a friend of mine's mom (of everyone I knew, she was the only person who owned any of their albums. I should have seen the foreshadowing in that fact). I didn't get a copy of "Do You Remember" until much later, ordering it off half.com a couple of years ago for around $5 including postage. It's not all that common of a used CD, but people just don't want this stuff.
I, for one, think that's a shame. It may not be easy to say what genre of music Chickasaw Mudd Puppies play, but one thing's for sure: it's a lot of fun to listen to. Their band came out of isolation; they were only discovered because singer/harmonica player Brant Slay happened to live next door to Michael Stipe, who heard Brant and guitarist/backup vocalist Ben Reynolds practicing on their front porch. During live shows, Brant would sit in a rocking chair like he had on his front porch when they practiced. Other instruments would be brought into the mix, especially on record, but Brant and Ben were the only real members of the band, and they had a fair amount of songs that used no instrumentation but guitars, harmonica, and Brant's feet stomping on the floor as he sang.
My copy of "White Dirt" was dubbed 13 years ago, and has been stored coverless in a milk crate with a lot of other coverless tapes for at least a decade of that time, which necessitated 10 minutes of digging before I found it. For all that, the damn thing still sounds really good. It's a bit muffled, but the production on the original recording was raw enough that it doesn't make that much difference. The album starts with "McIntosh", a rollicking, upbeat tune backed by skiffle-sounding percussion, heavy on the speedily brushed snare. Ben Reynolds plays an electric guitar, but his riffing is descended from a time when country and rock n' roll were far closer to each other than they are now. Meanwhile, Brant Slay's frantic harmonica solos and absurdist lyrics that pile up non-sequiturs about "a three-leg alligator layin' in a wallow" and "a great blue heron boxing with his shadow" without ever assembling them into any coherent narrative give the overall impression of hearing a radio station that's being beamed in from the bayou swamps of Venus or something. It's completely out of nowhere. It also fucking rocks.
The other songs on "White Dirt" vary in intensity, from similarly upbeat tunes like "Lon Chaney", which tells the story of the famous silent-film actor, but still from the perspective of the insane alien swamp creature who narrates "McIntosh" (sample "Lon Chaney" lyric: "Laugh that ol' laugh or he'll get slapped, the eyes are connected to the brim of your cap") to mournful country wails like the percussion-less "Skinny" and "Prison," which features a violin and at 3:57 is twice as long as almost every other song on the album. The entire thing is over in less than 25 minutes, and by the time it's over you just want to hear the whole thing again.
"8 Track Stomp", the full-length followup, is not bad, but it sadly loses a lot of what made "White Dirt" so weirdly transcendent. The production, jointly handled by Michael Stipe and blues legend Willie Dixon(!), is far clearer than that of "White Dirt", but this if anything does a disservice to Chickasaw Mudd Puppies' music. The raw, grotty sound of "White Dirt" accentuated the uniqueness of their sound, and removing it does a lot to diminish the mysterious, alien intensity that Chickasaw Mudd Puppies found on that album. That's not to say that it's all bad--"Do You Remember" is every bit as great as it sounded when I first heard it 14 years ago. It's aided by a riff structure that utilizes a lot more complicated chording than the standard blues progressions that most Mudd Puppies songs are based around. Also, the band members make some rare choices with their instrumentation that change the impression the song gives. Ben Reynolds plays an acoustic guitar, which allows the natural resonance of that instrument to draw more of the song's natural melody out into the open, while Brant Slay forgoes his usual technique of singing through a harmonica microphone, exchanging the metallic echoing sound that this gives his normal singing for a clearer, more melodic vocal tone.
They are less successful when attempting to repeat what they'd already done on "White Dirt". Some of the more standard Chickasaw Mudd Puppies songs here still work well, especially "Jambalaya", which features clanking cowbells and grinding ratchets as its sole percussion, "Night Time", with more of Brant's swamp dada approach to lyrics, and "Moving So Fast", a cover of producer Willie Dixon that is faithful without failing to inject a healthy dose of the unique Mudd Puppies personality. Tellingly, all of these tunes are grouped closely together at the beginning of the album. Things start to peter out toward the middle, especially when they hit "Shannon Loves Bisquit", a slow ballad that gives lead vocals to Ben while leaving Brant to play harmonica--a mistake the producers shouldn't have allowed them to make. While the social commentary of "Wasp" shows that Brant and Ben are not so isolated as not to be aware of the problems in the world, it seems awkward from a band who you'd expect to write a song with that title about insects, not white men. A second Willie Dixon cover, "Oh Yeah", sounds almost gospel at times, and is as awkward musically as "Shannon Loves Bisquit".
In the end, the lesson of "8 Track Stomp" may just be that Chickasaw Mudd Puppies shouldn't try to stretch what they do far enough to fill an entire full-length. Perhaps if they'd left the listener wanting more, as they did on "White Dirt", instead of making the album feel just a bit too long, it would have worked better. In the end, though, it's still a pity that so little recorded work of theirs exists. I'd love to hear what they'd have come up with, given another year or two to sit on their front porch and write another album. Hopefully they'd have kept it quick n' dirty, too. But there's really no use pontificating about it. Instead, those of you in the mood for something unlike anything you've ever heard before would be well advised to hunt down a copy of "White Dirt". And play it loud. With the windows open. Trust me.