The Laughing Man – A Palace for Alice
Kotori Studios (2009)
Rock / Blues / Funk / Folk
I say, “fusion,” and your mind probably says, “No.”
That image of the middle-aged men in the awfully loud shirts, trying to cram as much in the way of cheesy latin pastiches and bad bebop into their sweating attempts to make a guitar weep in case it might make them look young or sexy. They do it because they can’t afford a sports car or the maintenance on a gold-digging early twenty-something. Imagine a similar looking man listening to that 27-disk super set of such music, spinning away at his air guitar because the sports car and money-related lady is out of reach and who can’t play anything past “Kum Ba Yah” on a six string. Fusion has a bad rep.
Fortunately, the world has The Laughing Man and their thirteen-track debut full of prefix- and suffix-bending fusion, but without the desperation or pretenses. Or the shirts.
After an almost trip-hop intro you’re snatched away by a riff that would make Incubus jealous, with “Smile While I Show You the Door”. This sets the tone for what is to come, with a Faith No More feel flowing through the chorus that continues to shadow the harder parts of the band’s sound throughout the album. The second track is weirdly nostalgic thanks to a bassline that falls somewhere between Booker T. & the M.G.s’ “Time Is Tight” and Ben E. King’s classic “Stand by Me”.
It’s here we meet the first of a few major problems with this release: the vocals veering off on some ill-advised and out-of-key tangent that was obviously thrown out there for a bit of risky harmonic fun, but it fails completely. And the album continues to over-stretch itself over the course of its thirteen tracks, trying to be too clever or experimental. The gimmicky, ridiculous gun shots and wobbly synths that fog the chorus of “Red Lightning Bolt” sent me diving for my Xbox controller thinking i’d somehow left myself in the midst of some sci-fi death battle on a distant combat mission moon. The misfired vocals continue to rear their ugly heads throughout and regularly cause a cringe to squeeze your attention away from the brilliance that may be going on in the music underneath, which is a real shame.
As an album, I do think a couple of the tracks could and should have been dropped or at least developed further. The main culprits in this regard are the vocally reliant “Mungo Meets Marley” and dull closer “Down to the Bone”. Both tracks are dead weight compared to the other material on offer here, and they do become boring. Paradoxically, over-development is the main problem with some of the latter tracks, such as the aforementioned “Red Lightning Bolt”, giving you a sense that the band just didn’t know when to stop adding ideas into an already over-inflated track.
The momentum of the album’s ear-catching beginning isn’t entirely lost, however, with a number of stand-out tracks. “Having Fun Pt. 1” sounds like a Mike Patton-led ballad-esque number from Angel Dust but with an uptempo beat behind it. The following track, imaginatively entitled “Having Fun Pt. 2”, takes things the way of The Mars Volta in one of their more simple, gentler, slow-burning guises. Earlier on the album, “Home” and “My Greatest Friend” prop up the positivity carried over from the openers with their infectious energy. And the band almost threaten to lose themselves in the penultimate last stand of “All Hail” with its classic rock tinged, guitar driven wailing that melts into what could have been the perfect outro.
All in all, A Palace For Alice is an album of mixed fortunes and missed opportunities with smile-inducing moments of creative clarity marred by over-thinking and the all too common appearance of broken vocals and their ill-conceived harmonies. Here’s hoping, with this album under their collective belts, The Laughing Man can overcome these small yet all too obvious problems and become the band they’re threatening to be.