(Self-released, digital download)
In early January this year, James Kochalka Superstar released a curious recording. In truth, virtually everything Kochalka does, from music to cartoons, is curious in varying degrees. So to term his latest release as such is really saying something. The record, 4-Track Egomaniac, is a rerelease of a cassette album originally put out in a very limited run in 1996. It features Kochalka on vocals and longtime bandmate Jason Cooley on, well, everything else. And it’s fascinating on a number of levels. For starters, it presents rare and unfettered insight into a developmental period of one of Burlington’s most celebrated, idiosyncratic and, at times, divisive artists. It’s a unique look at some of his early musical explorations and, as such, is something of a must-have for serious fans and Kochalka completists. Also, it fucking rawks.
Over the years, JKS have morphed in and out of a variety of styles and formations, from the cheeky, punkish bent of his major-label work (Our Most Beloved, Rykodisc, 2005), to his chippy explorations of the limits of the Game Boy Advance sound card (Digital Elf, 2009) to ironic, sleazy dance pop (I Am the Beast, 2012) and, most recently, back around to muscular rock and roll on last year’s Beautiful Man. If nothing else, 4-Track Egomaniac provides the fraying thread that ties all of those varied, often-mystifying experiments together.
Regardless of the surrounding sonic aesthetic, Kochalka’s work almost always bears certain traits, including, but not necessarily limited to, anthemic-but-rudimentary melodies, crude sexual and bathroom humor, clever barbs at rock and pop iconography, and a pervasive, albeit playful, sense of arrested development. All of those characteristics can be found in spades on 4-Track Egomaniac.
On album opener “Join My Band,” the only song rerecorded for the rerelease, Kochalka sings in his trademark strained warble, “Take my hand / Join my band / We’ll go places / Where no one has been. / I will sing / And you play the instruments / And we’ll go places / Where no one has ever been.” And that’s it. The whole song clocks in at 36 seconds. And yet it almost seems emblematic of everything Kochalka has written since. It’s typically strange, yet oddly sweet.
The rest of the album is, as Kochalka himself rightly describes, “all very rough and tumble.” “Sour Summer” is an anti-summer jam. (“The summer sun is like a lemon / Squeezed into my eye.”) Alternating between sludge metal and bouncy acoustic pop, “Rock Will Never Die” suggests a schizophrenic Messiah complex. (“Rock and roll will never die / As long as I am alive.”) “Human Shit,” “Bathroom Buddies” and “Pecker Scabs” introduce his longstanding affinity for scatological humor and dick jokes. Hell, he even gets political, in his own manic way, on “Hey, Ronald Reagan” and “I’m the Shah.” (“I’m the Shah of Iran / I live in a garbage can. / I am the man.”)
4-Track Egomaniac will not win any new converts to the Cult of Kochalka. But those already in the fold should be thrilled at the prospect of rifling through the dancing skeletons in JKS’ closet. What they’ll find is weird, wacky and, if you’re of a mind for it, lots of fun. In other words, essential James Kochalka.
4-Track Egomaniac by James Kochalka Superstar is available at kochalka.bandcamp.com.