With all the complaints about bands that are all style and no substance, it's nice to finally find one that's all about substance. Even controlled substance.
Take Basehead, for instance, the critically acclaimed alternative funk outfit that has hitched its wagon to the warped brain waves of 24-year-old 'head honcho Michael Ivey. That's Ivey as in weed, as you might guess from a brief perusal of the band's sophomore LP Not in Kansas Anymore A from "I Need A Joint" to "Pass That Thought," the album takes gleeful potshots at clean living. (Basehead aficionados who date back to 1992's Play with Toys will recall a related preoccupation with alcoholic beverages in such bottoms-up anthems as "Ode to My Favorite Beer" and "2000 B.C." A that's brain cells to you.)
"Yeah, this is me," explains Ivey, who will appear at Bayfront Park Amphitheater this week as part of an adventurous quadruple bill that also includes Stone Temple Pilots, fIREHOSE, and the Butthole Surfers. "I talk quietly. I drink beer. I get high all the time. I put these songs on the albums because I want to be honest about what I do. But a person's life is more complex than one aspect." And complexity, it seems, is the real drug that Basehead craves. Play with Toys opens with a yodeling country cover of James Brown's "Sex Machine" that soon melts into a roadhouse skit reminiscent of the Blues Brothers' renowned "Rawhide" debacle, and the rest of the album follows naturally from that idiosyncratic lead.
As laid-back as a one-man band can be (think chaise longue), Ivey tackles common topics (breakups, mostly) with uncommon subtlety, indulging in substantial amounts of fourth-wall tomfoolery as his blurry vocals shunt lazily along. In "Not Over You," for instance, the fabric of the song tears away midway through to reveal a conversation between two friends about a love affair gone wrong. After tuning the radio in search of a pick-me-up A and instead finding only the four-hankie sounds of Heatwave's "Always and Forever" and Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine" A the buddies throw in the towel, and return to their regularly scheduled Basehead.
Though the first LP bewitched critics, Ivey was less than thrilled with the product. "Basically what got put out was my demo," he says, "and I had a little apprehension about letting something go that I didn't feel was completely finished. Maybe other people don't hear the same things in the album that I hear, but they're not as close to it as I am." Perhaps as a result of that uncomfortable intimacy, Not in Kansas Anymore reinvests the same quietly neurotic strategies, retaining its uniquely personal focus while tackling a wider range of issues. The title track, for instance, derails good-old-days nostalgia, while the rest of the LP touches on everything from affirmative action ("Brown Kisses Part One") to black-on-black crime ("Greener Pastures") to sexual politics (the thinly veiled pet metaphor of "Fluffy and Richard"). In "Brown Kisses Part Too," a cop character (the not-too-subtly named "Officer Neckred") objects to the stereotyping of all policemen as brutal, and Ivey, in the midst of his lazy flow, reconsiders.
Dialogic method and topical breadth are perfectly admirable goals, but Basehead wouldn't be worth its weight in Crossfire transcripts if it didn't deliver the rhythm. After nearly an hour of nonstop shine (including Side Two's fragmented opus "Hoes on Tour," which is neither as one-dimensional nor as misogynistic as it sounds) Kansas peaks with the irresistibly impolite "Do You Wanna Fuck (Or What)?" A a celebration of candor that circles a spiraling guitar riff before dissolving into a funky strut awash in frantic wax-scratching.
The song is one of four on the LP that makes use of Basehead's entire touring band A drummer Jay Nichols, guitarist Keith Lofton, bassist Bill Conway, and turntable wizard Clarence "Citizen Cope" Greenwood A which was assembled after the first album and has shared the stage with acts ranging from the Beastie Boys to Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. But even at peak musical confidence, Ivey (or, as some critics have taken to calling his recorded doppelgnger, "The Basehead Character") is never far away from those darned questioning voices. In "Do You Wanna Fuck?" he is soon besieged by women objecting to the titular offer. "Y'all are messing up my high," he whines. "Why don't y'all learn to sing, get your own record contract, and then you can make whatever song you want to make." When the dust settles, it's as if Sly Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay" had blindsided the Firesign Theater, leaving Ivey as sole survivor.
Basehead is often classified as rap, a designation that irks Ivey. "There are elements of that in the music, but I think what I'm doing is closer to singing than rapping," he says. "If I was white, they wouldn't call it rapping." Why split hairs? Well, because it's a partial exposure of the sad and simple truth A that a band trying to blast existent categories often finds itself left out in the cold. "We get played mostly on college radio," explains Ivey, "and maybe a few songs from the first album slipped onto alternative-rock stations. Now we're trying to get something done with our videos, and BET [Black Entertainment Television] and the Video Jukebox are playing 'Do You Wanna Fuck?' But MTV doesn't want to deal with us." Colored by a rare tinge of bitterness, Ivey's sleepy slur carries the greatest irony of his career thus far A though there's precious little room for true eccentrics in the starmaking machinery, within the fluid world of Basehead's songs (where black blends into white, male melts into female, and there's no such thing as an unspoken thought), he'd be quite a star.
Basehead performs with Stone Temple Pilots, fIREHOSE, and Butthole Surfers after 5:00 p.m. Thursday at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd, 358-7550. Admission costs $15 in advance, $17 day of the show.
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