by Mike LeSuer (@zebraabraham)
It’s become easy to dismiss the contemporary supergroup as being nothing but an overblown experiment in repositioning distinct musical personalities amongst each other in a feeble attempt to maximize the entertainment value of their music. Most collaborations reflect the non-stop action of an NBA All-Star game, quickly losing their appeal when every play is an alley-oop pass fed from half court, while the unnecessary dash of Hollywood adds little to enhance the experience.
Yet some artists in the years since such groups’ monikers served as a brief synopsis of the liner notes accompanying their record have succeeded in comprising a workable formula to create music capable of an existence largely outside the context of its creators: channeling the meandering experimentalism of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, approximately half of Toronto’s musical population came together in the late nineties to form the orchestral jam band Broken Social Scene, and, along with it, a healthy culture of polygamy within Canada’s thriving indie rock scene. More recently the hip-hop duo Run The Jewels has scored a fan base far outnumbering those of their two individual members who gravitated towards each other following the realization of a shared sense of humor and concern for social progress in addition to an uncanny musical compatibility.
Landing somewhere in the middle, Big Walnuts Yonder - a quartet consisting of three insatiable wits and Wilco ace-in-the-hole Nels Cline - balances improvisation and experimentation on each track of last May’s self-titled debut. Predominantly led by the vocals of a man who once wrote a song called “When a Vegan Eats a Vegan,” Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos, Bygones) conducts his band of misfit sexagenarians through dense sound collages vaguely recalling stints within each member's several-decades-long career. Alongside the boisterous personalities of Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, bassist on an ‘80s ballad precariously titled “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?”), Greg Saunier (Deerhoof, Nervous Cop, drummer on the deceptively emotionless “The Greg Saunier Retaliation”), and Cline’s dependable straightman guitar work, Reinhart finds a suitable outlet for liberating the excess weird prior to the release of Tera Melos’ forthcoming Trash Generator.
By no means is BWY a project of Reinhart’s relative adolescence, though - Watt’s gruff intonations distinguish the ironic assertiveness of “Raise the Drawbridges?” and the apt synecdoche of “I Got Marty Feldman Eyes,” while Cline’s guitar wails alongside Reinhart’s vocals on “Pud” and dominates the stark wilderness of the nine minute “Flare Star Phantom.” Meanwhile, Saunier’s unpredictable percussion guides the fatal wonk of highlights “Sponge Bath” and “Rapid Driver Moon Inhaler.” By mid-album, the sunny energy of “Ready to Pop!” presents the group at their harmonious peak, leading into a less distinctive - albeit more cohesive - second act.
Boasting the technical congruity of ELP and the mutual respect of El-P and his verse-trading partner, BWY succeeds where most like-minded projects fall short - namely in each member’s adaptability to playing somewhat outside their comfort zone, as well as in their collective ability to shed their day job personas for the sake of a common goal. Big Walnuts Yonder is merely a documentation of four disparate musicians getting to know each other through their instruments rather than a tedious onslaught of Guitar Hero riffs and Rock Band drum solos and the sheer gimmick of a member of Hanson behind the mic. “Just cats playin,’” grunts Watt, personifying an abnormally large pile of distant stone fruits with misaligned eyes and an infectious laugh displaced from the background of a Deerhoof set, “interested in what other cats are doin.’”