The Chewers thrust their faces, suddenly, out of the forest. They notice your startled expression, but they just cross their eyes at you. They’re not here to entertain you, let alone impress you. They’re sniffing around music, a couple of junk dogs, seeing what they can make of it. There will be bumps and boings: there will be scraps of sudden, enthusiastic remembering. There will be sudden interjections. There will be rather a lot of hammering.
The Chewers are Travis Caffrey and Michael Sadler, a pair of self-confessed West Virginian freaks. Most of what they do involves rudimentary guitar lines which complain like old suspension springs; drums thumped with a bastardized ritual technique; frowning stump-handed bass playing which is too big for the room but too inert to leave it. They sing, after a fashion – usually in a menacing deadpan creak, sometimes in a gruff lobotomized roar. Melodies are torn off, like unwanted paint: they strip everything down to a trapped and surly chug, then filter it through the sound of collapse. Sometimes they leave an electric organ broiling in the corner, add a layer of picked-out piano, or torment a fiddle with skeleton plucks or sawing skids.
These are the kind of tunes that could make a musician forget how to play. Their goofy, deadpan primitivism sounds like drunken mechanics banging rocks together in a Flintstones cartoon; or a couple of bears who’ve set upon and eaten a guy in a one-man-band outfit, then start fumbling at the crumpled instruments to try and get that interesting noise back. We’ve been here before, of course, with The Residents – and a musky, oppressive Residents reek hangs all over The Chewers’ faux-artless art music. At a root level, both bands work with the same kind of sub-technique – deliberately clumsy, deliberately short-sighted, attempting to sneak up on an idiot-savant approach from behind.
Much of The Chewers’ debut album ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ seems to follows a freak-show blueprint. Stirring a greasy canful of satire and nihilism, Travis and Michael are self-confessed cartographers of tiny personal hells. While what can be discerned of their settings, characters and stylings are unmistakeably American, they’re often fairly timeless. They present stark three-line drawings of insanities and self-inflicted rages, or of situations slewing into enmity or a crude revenge. Their Americana is absurd and brutal, part Faulkner and part ‘Gummo’ – the kind of storyscape in which thick-set dungaree’d inbreds drag their own coffins around on leg-chains and where frowning men, preoccupied with guzzling and paranoia, squat guard outside collapsing shacks, broken-down trailers and mouldering gambrel houses.
In fact (as with The Residents), what The Chewers do behind their Muppet voices and smeary, tarry-black humour is less elaborate and even more savage. With American Gothic, there’s some state of aspiration to fall from and some perverse pleasure in the decay. The Chewers, though, deal with lives apparently blunted by ignorance, obsession, violence and inertia from the start. You’re a brute; or a chump; or the target of someone else’s shills and exploitations – and you’re stuck with it. The misanthropic ranting of Human Scum is couched in brown-dwarf rock-and-roll, compressed to a broken stumble of sour fuzz guitar, splattered twang and thunder-drum. “Get your slime out of this house,” one Chewer growls on Get Out Of Town, while half a blues riff tussles with fragments of Dobro slide. “You left many things behind. / None of them was a friend.”
The Chewers clearly enjoy their grim and guttural journey. During breaks in dragging around those hope-coffins, they indulge in short instrumentals, deliberate guitar bungles and instinctual blobs of pick-up-and-play sound-art. The Scooby Doo caveman vocals and berimbau twanging on Who Ra makes that Residents debt even more explicit (it could easily sit alongside the faked rituals and pop-culture gags on ‘Eskimo’). Don’t Go In The Tent offers three minutes of machine pulse, bat-wing bellows-chords and drill-whistles. The Day The Circus Came To Town fools around with Autotune-whooping, kazoos and fiddle scrawls. The Chewers bring an exultation to this part of the work, delighting in the clash of noises.
Much of the music thumbs its nose at American aspiration while revelling in American orneriness and the palpable debris of American life. This makes absolute sense – the other key Chewers influences are those utterly American musicians and songwriters who stick like bones in the throat of their culture. The three Swamp Drag pieces bear the stamp (or stomp) of Tom Waits hobo-music pieces with their wounded marching drum, their dinosaur gronks and busted-suspension riffage, their broken-off stub of tune and the lost, frothing narrator winding his way inwards. Butterknife – with its deadpan sprechstimme and its indistinct, twisting story of marital discontent, murder and kitchen utensils – owes plenty to Frank Zappa .
Two other songs have a fairly explicit Captain Beefheart tang. The evangelism parody of Savior Pill crumbles like ripe old cheese as it lurches along on jazz cymbals and gnarled-up blues: although the lyrics, using the language of oldtime radio hucksters, are more Zappa. “Shouldn’t you have some relief? Call to see if you qualify… / Legs are restless, souls in strife. / Side effects include everlasting life. / Call in ten minutes and you’ll see the light. / Benefits are many, side effects are few – we’ll even throw in a Second Coming.” Beyond its guitar boings and grits-pan clunks, Fire on the Hill stumbles into trek poetry, painting the simple beauty of the outdoors in disconnected swipes and flashes while entwining it with the occult. “Trouble is following me through the long grass… / Voices beside me as I sit near the flames – the horses make noises, they drop through the dark… / Laughing is loud, / the crickets are chirping. / The sky is a dome.”
On the whole, though, Chewers songs are populated by fuck-ups. Convicts stuff their faces; some people fall down wells (where they wait, somewhat indifferently, for rescue), while others wander permanently off the trail. Damaged men sit alone in rooms, propelled into puzzling hallucinations by ringing telephones. The ambitious aren’t spared either. With the grinding punk-slurry riff and monotone delivery of Hollywood Car, Travis and Michael caustically lay waste to dreams of celebrity, reducing them to empty greed. “Rotten soul don’t get old… / Pledge yourself like all the others. / Step over your mom – skin is glossy like a magazine cover… / Smile through your teeth and ignore the poor. / You got your foot in the door. / You’ve had fifteen and you want some more… / Hollywood isn’t a workplace rat-race – / it’s a high-speed chase. / Cut off your nose to spite your face.”
Perhaps where all of this fails a little is in the way The Chewers allow their absurdism thicken into cynicism. Never really presenting their blundering song-characters as anything other than grim entertainment or easy meat, they don’t leave them the option of dignity. There’s rarely any of punk’s indignation; and not even much of Zappa’s frustrated disdain. On Specimen, they play a crude kazoo-laden cha-cha-cha and deliver a one-way story about a man becoming a test animal in a destructive medical experiment. On the strummed, limping lollop of Charlie Chum, they show even less sympathy for their hapless protagonist. “You should have seen this coming” they grunt, as they drawing a muddled, menacing picture of a man who first deceives and then overreaches himself; who “chews his words like cows chew cud… / believes every word he speaks.” Falling foul of the predators, he eventually pays the price – “Charlie Chum has got two hands – / one swats flies, one deals cards. / Deck is cut, game draws blood, / sharks tear Charlie Chum apart.” Travis and Michael, at least, seem to think he had it coming. Despite the murky flourishes, this never rises above the level of chump cartoon, and that’s a shame.
But perhaps I’m being unfair. Even at the very least ,the album’s cartoon-noir tone is enjoyable once you’ve attuned yourself to its sinister creep; and one track – an acapella ode to the joy of pancakes – offers some relief. As The Chewers sing, hiccup, belch and gargle their way through a gamut of American musical trademarks (a blues-grind, some close-harmony doo-wop, a prison song, a Spike Jones fusillade of comedy noises) they also recite a series of cheerfully dumb Bubba-isms in a thoughtful Jimmy Dean drawl. “Life without pancakes is hell on earth, / and I don’t mind my massive girth… / The only difference between beast and man / is – an animal can’t make a cake in a pan… / When they find me bloated in the gutter, / they can cover my coffin in syrup and butter.”
Though they top it off with a particularly dopey and violent twist (“The only way I’ll have my fill / is when they make one good enough to kill,”) it’s somehow an affectionate moment: one in which they embrace their all-American idiot as well as laugh at him. At The Chewers’ jokiest moment it all comes together – the stubbornness and rebelliousness that’s as much a part of Americana as is romance or beauty; the love of homemade noise and of squeezing music out from the pips; the thick’n’tasty bozo parade.
The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’
The Chewers (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 6th February 2011
Buy it from:
The Chewers homepage.