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John Wilkes Booze - Five Pillars of Soul

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Artist: John Wilkes Booze

Album: Five Pillars of Soul

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: May. 24, 2004


Blackspliotation-era R&B has been a steady influence in independent rock since John Spencer started shouting "Souuuul!" and it's never been a very comfortable fit. Funk requires a disciplined interaction that's a cut above most indie bands' skills. But the DIY ethic demands that the musicians stay fans, and for all the sloppy soul these guitar rockers have spit out, it's always affectionate, even if it's not exactly funky. James Brown puts it on the one and you wobble at the knees. Sloppy soul puts it on the one 'cause they can't keep it together past the second beat.

In the mid-90s, a bunch of Seattle punk veterans going by the name Jack O' Fire put out a series of "Soul 101" EPs, plus a few albums plastered with manifestos announcing that they "are the scissors of Matisse..The wail of Ginsberg." Their history of soul involved covering everyone from Howlin' Wolf to Wire. Supremely geeky, it also rocked. Detroit's Dirtbombs are probably the finest current practitioners of this mix of fanboy scholarship and noisy-ass fun.

John Wilkes Booze come from even further afield than Michigan or Seattle. They're from Indiana. They started out as the John Wilkes Booze Explosion. Five Pillars of Soul is an even bigger conceit than "Soul 101." Originally five EPs, each covering a different member of the soul cannon, this tribute isn't expressed with cover versions. Rather, they've created songs evoking the spirits of their five pillars.

The titans they chose: Albert Ayler, film director Melvin Van Peebles, Marc Bolan of T Rex, Yoko Ono, and kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst. This isn't intended to be absurdist. The booklet for this compilation is a detailed justification for their choices. It's interesting that their choices were all figures from the Nixon years (though Ayler was at the end of his life in 1970). Much of the freedom and rebellion that popular memory associates with the 60s actually occurred in the early 70s.

All five were outsiders even in this tumultuous time. Ayler came to free jazz without participating in bop. Van Peebles made hit movies that were too raw for the studio system. T Rex never translated British superstardom to America. Ono's marriage to Lennon branded her a bullshit artist. And when Hearst looked to be a willing participant in a bank robbery, it overturned notions of who made up the radical underground.

The band laid the songs down quickly in the studio, in one-day sessions for each EP. Since their basic mode is grimy funk riffing, Van Peebles is the only literal fit. Popping basslines and electric organ tie these songs to 70s soul, but results fall closer to hard-rock boogie. They connect to their subjects more through lyrics, found sounds, and sample-like musical quotations. "They Don't Like Me in this Town" opens with an Ayler snippet, then blends into live squawking for a few bars, before the band kicks in and stomps through a "Gloria" rave up. Singer Seth Mahern doesn't have a pleasant voice it's high and reedy and a bit like a saxophone. But it cuts through the jumble of sounds, and works in this context. Most of the lyrics are written from the icon's perspective. Mahern puts everything into inhabiting these characters, and seems aware of the ridiculousness of it all. The result is heartfelt. And that's what makes this kind of music rise above camp.

When JWB abandon the funk moves for the two Marc Bolan cuts, they're even more effective. The first, "Marc Bolan Makes Me Want to Fuck" strings together lines from several T Rex hits, harmonized over a quiet piano figure. "Academy Flight Song" has a similar gentleness. It's a chant inspired from a Bolan interview, which rolls in the background. The Mission of Burma reference in the title and the appearance elsewhere of music by the Fugs and the Zombies suggest that they were passionate about their short list, and had a hard time reducing it to five. And when they build a campfire sing-along around the Symbionese Liberation Army slogan "death to the fascist insects who prey upon the lives of the people" the results are more convincing then the concept, much like the rest of Five Pillars of Soul.

By Ben Donnelly

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