September 14, 2005

Need New Body "Where's Black Ben??"

If there’s any adjective that neatly sums up the music of Philadelphian quintet Need New Body, it is “self-indulgent.” Even their staunchest apologists have to admit that the members of Need New Body are more concerned with entertaining themselves than they are with entertaining their audience. All three times I’ve seen them live, vocalist Jeff Bradbury would take an occasional moment to run into the audience and dance to his band mates’ accompaniment. Even then, it felt like there was no one else in the room but him and his four comrades. Need New Body’s shows and records are platforms through which they indulge any and every whim that comes to their heads. This freewheeling aesthetic has its pros and cons. On one hand, it enables them to dance around genres like punk, jazz and bluegrass with ease, and to blur the lines between composition and improvisation with often hilarious results. On the other hand, it occasionally forces listeners to sit through long stretches of nothingness.

Need New Body’s first two albums, especially 2003’s UFO, had a surprisingly high signal-to-noise ratio, and their latest release Where’s Black Ben? certainly gets off to a good start. On opening track “Brite Tha’ Day,” the rhythm section lays down a funk groove that would make the Ohio Players proud. It is quickly sabotaged by shards of feedback and some of the most intentionally lame rapping ever recorded. Bradbury saves the day with a sung chorus that sounds like an AM radio crooner overdosing on nitrous oxide; he even bursts into laughter in mid-song, which should tell you a lot. About halfway through, the feedback and the rapping stops being irritating and instead becomes endearing. By straddling such a fine line and ending up on the RIGHT side of the divide, this song ends up being a perfect example of their aesthetic.

Another example of this can be found on the fifth song, “Mouth Breather.” During the first half of the song, one of the members hyperactively chants “one, two, check” into the microphone over and over again. Just when you’re ready to eject the CD and use it as a Frisbee, the song blossoms into a distorted keyboard fugue that sounds like the soundtrack to an old Super Nintendo game…and THEN they throw in a dulcimer solo! Other songs are less of a challenge to the listener. “Poppa B” is a catchy banjo-driven romp about love, friendship and dancing. “Peruvidia” mimics the tribal pounding and munchkin wailing of the Animal Collective. “So St Rx” is a hilarious and danceable tribute to downtown Philly, in which the band members expertly recreate the random conversations they hear on South Street. Last but not least, there’s the free-jazz one-two punch of “Outerspace” and “Inner Gift.” The former is a Sun Ra cover and the latter sounds like a tribute to John Coltrane’s “Ascension.”

Despite the wealth of good ideas on display, Black Ben ends up being Need New Body’s weakest album because of its atrocious sequencing. On previous albums, the least inspired tracks were brief, few and far between. Black Ben, on the other hand, gives you the crap in concentrated doses. Take, for example, the three-song medley of “Abstract Dancers,” “Pearl Crusher” and “Pax N Alf” near the album’s end, which is basically four minutes of the band abusing their samplers and flat-handing their keyboards. If these tracks were scattered across the album, they’d probably be tolerable palate cleansers. Grouped together, though, the medley only serves to give more ammunition to critics who already think that Need New Body isn’t up to much.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website:
Label Website:

No comments: