Ever wonder what music will sound like come the inevitable complete collapse of Western civilisation? When the few starving survivors who remain are forced to eke out their dwindling days without fuel or food or even (God help us) the internet, sheltering in burnt-out cars as they avoid roaming packs of dead-eyed, cannabilistic youths? When, with pro-tools and auto-tune and even electricity having passed into the realms of legend, all that remains available to the budding musician is a few bin lids to bang together and whatever rudimentary stringed instruments he’s been able to cobble together from the rubble? Well wonder no more, for here are Nashville duo The Chewers with an album of ragged, roughly-hewn, juddering oddball folk, the perfect soundtrack for a doomed world.
Delivering 19 (mostly short) songs, interspersed with three particularly bizarre interludes entitled ‘(NOW)’, ‘(LATER)’ and ‘(PAST)’, the suitably strangely-titled Chuckle Change And Also is by turns disquieting, amusing and deeply sinister. ‘Can’t Sleep‘, which sees atonal guitar scrabblings combined with a tribal beat and a chorus that consists of the title intoned in deadpan fashion over and over, pretty much sets out the band’s stall. ‘Burn It Down‘ is funk music as played by zombies, its lyrics conveying pyromaniac tendencies via heavily processed vocals and a barked Beefheartian refrain. ‘Some Folk‘ sounds like a long-lost collaboration between Primus and Tom Waits, while the thumping instrumental ‘A Part Machine‘ would have slotted in comfortably on the latter’s Bone Machine (indeed, much of the album consists of the kind of material that Waits at his most cacophonous might discard for being just too out-there).
It’s dark stuff, for sure, but there’s a vein of humour running through the album too. Witness how – over seasick fiddle – the protaganist of ‘Filthy‘ sings the praises of being unwashed: “Hygiene’s for those rich folk/Prefer to be greasy like a bicycle spoke…Live in a landfill, sleep in a trashcan/Not because I have to, just because I can, man“. Or how the spoken word ‘Inmate 227‘ recounts the blackly comic tale of an ex-con released after 15 years of hard time who ends up wishing he was back inside. But mostly The Chewers sing of disaffection and disgust at mainstream society. The queasy, piano-led highlight ‘Smiling Samuel‘, for example, tells chillingly of a man at the end of his tether who’s on the verge of going postal: “Smiling Samuel’s a company man/Employee of the month last year…Circuits shorting out his thoughts…Shocking visions of choking throats…Smiling Samuel’s full of hate.“
Often the unhinged sound and imagery combine to form something downright ugly. The frankly disturbing ‘The Fat Man‘ sounds like the kind of song Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre might stick on the stereo to get him in the mood for the grisly killing of some innocent hitchhikers, its squawking lead guitar part sounding like it was played by a slow-witted, three-fingered backwoods farmhand, with the groans of the slaughterhouse providing ominous percussive backing. The bestial titular character is described as sitting “…in an iron tub, sucking skin off chicken breast/…His glass is full of people’s tears/His children are all catamites, his seed is green and feared.” Elsewhere, ‘Blank Pavement‘ marries a reversed sample to an ominous, driving riff, with the the song interrupted occasionally by a howl of static coupled with a blood-curdling human scream. The unnerving ‘Funnel Head‘ might be the closest thing on the record to conventional rock music (inasmuch as it features an actual electric guitar playing something approximating a tune), but it still manages to sound like its makers are having a nervous breakdown even as they lay down the song. The longest track on the album, ‘Tornado Of Stasis‘, is also quite possibly the best, six minutes of slow-burning, creeping dread – all sawing strings and ominous stabs of piano – featuring some of the most astonishingly esoteric lyrics this side of prime period Mark E Smith. Sorrowful closer ‘Went away‘ sounds so utterly bereft – lyrics moaned despairingly over awkward, free-form guitar and the sound of pouring rain and thunder – that it makes Jandek look like One Direction.
Some judicious editing might have elevated the album yet further: For one thing, brief though they mostly are, 20-odd unforgiving slabs of menacing, dischordant clatter in a row is going to test the endurance of even the most ardent fan of hillbilly death-folk. But for the most part Chuckle, Change And Also is tremendous stuff: nightmarish, witty, compelling and deeply, deeply unusual. If this is indeed how the end of the world will sound, then bring on the apocalypse.