I was a big fan of Sean Lennon’s 1998 album, Into the Sun. There was a lot of whimsy, and a lot of relaxed jams, but some really great songwriting chops in there, too. That felt about perfect. Being the son of one of the most celebrated songwriters in history probably leaves a lot to be desired in the way of expectations, and I thought that was a great way to go about it – show people you know what you’re doing, but in a relaxed manner. And it ended up having more in common with Beck than it did with anything in the Beatles catalog. I was also a fan of his more recent work in The Ghost of A Saber Tooth Tiger.
I’ve likewise been a longtime fan of Primus, and Les Claypool, even when he gets exceptionally goofy at times. He’s an undeniably serious bass player, and that has yielded a career all across the board, from Zappa-esque forays into humor and psychedelia to being adopted for a while by the jam band crowd (seriously, I still didn’t see that coming).
The prospect of them working together was nothing I ever would’ve imagined, but, in retrospect, there’s a lot of common ground here — a love of being relaxed while committing to making good music, and just generally wanting to have a good time while doing it. And both artists have extensive resumes of collaborations from any genre you care you name.
Monolith of Phobos is pretty much what you think it would be, and in a really great way. Nothing takes itself too seriously in the lyrics, though there’s a loose concept going on. But it sounds pretty much like a collaboration between Primus and various aspects of The Beatles, with tangents here and there. The songs drip in melody and orchestral flourishes, mostly in the form of lush keyboards.
Probably the acid test of whether the lyrics will win you over or not is in the song “Mr. Wright,” a groovy little bit of a head trip jam about an upstanding guy who likes to get off by setting up cameras and watching you sleep, shower, and pee. The hook is catchy, and I find myself whistling it, and then grinning about the lyrics, but they may not be for everyone. “Captain Lariat” is another song that could’ve been a Primus song, but through the Lennon prism it ends up becoming a technicolor pop song (and gives a shoutout to the Iowa-created whiskey Templeton Rye).
Sean Lennon is probably the superior vocalist of the two, but Claypool isn’t nearly as silly here as he can sometimes be, and it’s great to hear him focus like this. Lennon comes off as a cross between George Harrison and Kevin Parker from Tame Impala a fair amount, which is a really sweet spot of the record. For every glorious polyrhythmic groove underpinning a song, there’s a beautiful melody or arranged keyboard section going on, and when Lennon decides to channel his mother Yoko Ono a bit and get his freak on, Claypool steps back and holds down the groove.
It works much better than one might expect, and the results are a bizarrely friendly freakshow of an incredibly focused album that is greater than the sum of its admittedly great parts, highlighting the best qualities of all involved.
Monolith of Phobos is out June 3 on ATO Records. You can stream the album now over at Rolling Stone.