Bananagun: The True Story of Bananagun (Full Time Hobby)
Khruangbin: Mordechai (Dead Oceans)
Bananagun had me won over with their name, a readymade punch line for a mild risqué joke often attributed to the actress Mae West. “Is that a (gun/banana) in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” Like the quip, Bananagun, from Melbourne, Australia, does not take itself too seriously. They’re mellow yellow.
Its videos strive for the manic energy of set pieces from the Monkees, or the slightly distorted kaleidoscopic effects of low-budget 1960s psychedelic art. They run around barefoot; they’re funny and silly.
The garage rock roots and mild trippiness of Bananagun is part of its allure. In a brief appraisal in The New Yorker in its “Night Life” section recently, writer Jay Ruttenberg distilled the band to its essence: The group “bears the hallmarks of one of the sundry sixties acts whose work slipped through the cracks of time, only to be salvaged, decades later, by sharp-eared record collectors.” That’s especially true of the fab opening cut, “Bang Go the Bongos,” which has both escalating Merseybeat harmonies and the clatter of your local high school band’s basement. There are multiple percussionists, two horn players, and myriad people banging things to propel the songs of guitarist and singer Nick Van Bakel.
In other words, Bananagun comes predigested for crate diggers. I am not sure how this record will go over for the substantial audiophile segment reading this: I have listened to The True Story mostly on inexpensive Cyber Acoustics computer speakers, which may account for the “authenticity” of what I’m hearing as their 1960s roots. The musical roots are not just the Aussie-Anglo-American garage sound of the Easybeats, the Australian-band that released the enduring “Friday On My Mind.” The band also leans into the 1960s Brazilian tropicalia of Os Mutantes, and the high-life and Afrobeat of Nigeria’s 20th century musical titan Fela Kuti. You need know nothing about either to appreciate this record.
Bananagun is much a product of cosmopolitan 21st century Melbourne, especially its remarkable radio station, PBS (for Progressive Broadcasting Service). Founded at the dawn of the punk era (1976/1977), its mission statement has been “creating space for little-heard music and underrepresented voices.”
If you’re in the area, you can listen at 106.7 FM, but chances are you’re not in Australia, and you will want to listen online at https://www.pbsfm.org.au/guide. The programming is so deep and diverse that if you listened for a week, you’d probably never hear the same song twice. Aside from a Monday-Friday morning show, every hour or two has a different program. “Curating” is an overused term these days, but you can get a feel for the specialized expertise in each segment from some of the program titles: “Twistin’ Fever,” “Mumbai Masala,” “Boss Action” (not Springsteen, but rare funk and soul), “What the Folk” (or self-described as “world folk whatever that means”), “Riddim Yard.” No matter what the niche, a global mindset is the soul of PBS programming, and the programmer hosts are passionate about honoring the cultural implications of their source material.
These days programs are archived for online access, but when I first started listening to Emma Peel’s show “Switched On” years ago, my children were young and I had to listen low, or with headphones, live at 11 pm on Friday nights. I had the feeling I was listening in real time, since Peel’s specialty and my passion was rare salsa and boogaloo from the late 1960s and early 1970s: Joe Bataan and Johnny Colon, for example, but also hard to find moody grooves from anywhere in the galaxy. (“The usual unusual tunes.”) I dig Horace Silver, for example, but his “Acid, Pot and Pills,” played recently by Peel, is not as familiar to me as “Song for My Father.”
At the time I exchanged emails with Peel a few times, and wrote about her show on my blog, but there was one thing that shook me when I looked at the clock: This music, so spectacularly suited for late Friday night, was running live in Melbourne from 1 pm to 3 pm Saturday afternoon. I am guessing she is much in demand on weekend nights DJ-ing at clubs.
So if you grow up with this musical ecological diversity, no doubt it would seep in to your music organically. That’s why Bananagun’s music sounds so unforced. “Freak Machine” mixes some Afrobeat guitar and funk rhythms, but the sound it evokes to me is what might accompany folkloric Ghanaian movie posters. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190313-incredible-ghanaian-film-posters. These posters often advertised bootlegged versions of Hollywood action movies (Sly Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Charles Bronson) that the artist had not even seen. By using the title and iconography of the stars, the artists were free to improvise: In a poster for Jurassic Park, a man is taking a golf swing at a dinosaur.
This is the world of imagination that Bananagun, at its best, inhabits: “Modern Day Problems” finds its way into the Secret Agent Man TV theme, while “People Talk Too Much” is an instrumental interrupted occasionally by a line of singing. The samba pop “Out of Reach” and the flute swing of “Perfect Stranger” offer a hint of summer romance, while “Bird Up!” has lots of bird sounds. Real birds, from Van Bakel’s country house.
Not so coincidentally, the first week of July PBS Melbourne featured Mordechai, the new album by Texas trio Khruangbin (pronounced “krung-bin”). The bands are almost mirrors of one another. Khruangbin also digs that birds live in their song “Father Bird, Mother Bird.” For both bands, the bird is the word.
Khruangbin’s musical fetish is for the Thai rock of the 1960s and 1970s. Though it takes its name from the Thai word for airplane, the trio comes from the smallest of small town Texas: a dot on the map called Burton, population about 300, incorporated as a city about 80 miles from Houston. The trio of Laura Lee (bass and vocals), Mark Speer (guitar), and Donald “DJ” Harrison (drums) met singing gospel in church, which is highly likely, since there does not seem to be any other place in Burton in which to meet: A blow-up of Burton on an online map showed a Baptist church to be about the only named building in the city limits, with another Baptist church just outside. Their Texas bona fides are so solid that despite the global percussion and Thai guitar influence, “Mordechai” is included in an Americana Highways poll for readers to choose the best album of the month. They’re on the list with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Steve Wynn, Sarah Jarosz and John Hartford.
Previous albums have been mostly instrumental. “Mordechai” is also instrument-first, though there are more vocals led by Laura Lee. On “If There is No Question,” the vocals are just another sound deep in the mix. The dreamlike “Dearest Alfred” sounds like a letter written in artificial intelligence version of another language translated into English, with odd syntax: “Can you imagine my joy? I received your wonderful letter.”
Khruangbin also draws on European movie soundtracks (“Connaissais de Face”); “One to Remember” is a kind of floating dub reggae, not unusual for this band which in 2019 released Hasta el Cielo, an entire dub version of its Con Todo El Mundo album. Both records reinforce the essential presence of Laura Lee’s bass guitar. The Tex-Mex regional roots on the new album are evident in “Pelota,” and you can imagine that if there was one restaurant in Burton, it might be Tex-Mex-Thai fusion. Or at least in their Houston neighborhood.
There are times, as with the largely instrumental New Orleans band Galactic, that they might thrive in a more formal situation as full partners with a singer-songwriter. Khruangbin did that earlier in 2020 on an EP called Texas Sun with Lone Star singer-songwriter Leon Bridges. The title song is the best thing either has recorded: it has that crisp, desert border sound of the band Calexico. Though Bridges clearly drives the song “Texas Sun,” the tune “C-Side” has Bridges working hard to work his phrasing around Khruangbin’s unpredictable beat and exotic sounds. Whatever the style, Khruangbin is both distinctive and adaptable, comfortable in a world of its own.