Nurse With Wound - "Thrill Of Romance...?" (Huffin' Rag Blues)
Stephen Stapleton (or Nurse With Wound, or NWW) has been doing his Dada for 30 goddamn years. He’s hosted punishing industrial discipline-fests, playful sound collages, eerie hypnosis soundtracks and, on occasion, postmodern pop (best exemplified by the lite-funk creep-out Who Can I Turn To Stereo?). 2004’s Angry Electric Finger trilogy, an arbitrary tour through every NWW idea that stuck, might have been his definitive career-capper. The conceptually cheeky “greatest hits” collection Livin’ Fear of James Last might have made NWW feel canonized. But, like most of his late-period work, they both slid right under the public radar, and now fetch prohibitively high prices at auction. Stapleton may be as eccentric and prolific as Lil Wayne, but he’s never attracted the same unquestioning adoration from centrist indie-rockers. He keeps putting stuff out, but it doesn’t get passed around. His music exists only in context with itself. Journos need a “hook,” even if you’ve got a few fans that don’t. Stapleton has spent 30 years discovering that no one else really gets his dream journal.
Unsurprisingly, Huffin’ Rag Blues, which might be a high-concept crossover attempt, has thusfar met with nearly universal indifference. Even the NWW coterie probably doesn’t know what to make of it. Y’see, it’s a jazz record, or a commentary on jazz records, but not “good,” A Love Supreme-type jazz records. This is a record about corny speakeasy jazz records. With Stapleton’s irreverent surrealism and electronic dissonance, it examines those old pop-jazz records, and it divines the creepiness within. Crazy!
Basically, Huffin’ Rag Blues sounds like an artifact of the long-forgotten retro swing and exotica fads that flourished, briefly, during the 1994-96 Cobain suicide fallout, when a few brave hipsters dove into Technicolor yard-sale kitsch as the most blatant possible rejection of grunge and discovered that, hey, a lot of this stuff is weird, way-out in a way that fake-blues psychedelia never approached. This record would’ve found a loving home with the people who played between the poles of RE/Search and Swingers. But those people have completely disappeared. Martin Denny and “Willie the Weeper” are no longer ripe for cryptic satire. Younger critics who shit their Underoos over Panda Bear have no context for this whatsoever. So it just sounds like a relatively bland NWW record with a few imbalanced collaborations (the ever-present, neutralizing influence of Andrew Liles; vocalist Lynn Jackson’s recurring Mo Tucker impression; Matt Waldron’s overwrought Tom Waits pastiche on “Black Teeth”). It’s a meta-meta-meta-throwback. Or a weird Tipsy record. And no one seems to give a shit.
Given a few months in the deck, its subtle charms emerge. “The Funktion of the Hairy Egg” echoes the rhythmic fever-dreams of Who Can I Turn to Stereo?, stashes Jackson’s most haunting incantation near the nine-minute mark, collapses into a cacophony of barnyard noises, and holds surprises for the dozenth go-round. “Cruisin’ For a Bruisin’” celebrates internal combustion on its way to a crash that’s obvious but still thrillingly loud. And the almost a cappella rendition of “All of Me” gets a creepy-love-song-reclamation award. Half a century from now, if we make it, it’ll be “Every Breath You Take.”