The Prog Prince: Squarepusher’s “Just a Souvenir”

This album started as a daydream about watching a crazy, beautiful rock band play an ultra-gig.” -Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher

If Squarepusher fans abandoned Tom Jenkinson for any reason other than for churning out his same recipe of jazz-fusion, drill-n-bass, and musique concrète, it would be for finally providing evidence that he may, after all, be human.  For over 10 years now, Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, has wowed audiences and home-listeners alike with his blend of virtuoso bass solos, chaotic amen-break reconstructions, and all-out fuck-all noise assaults.  Whatever genre Jenkinson has chosen in the past to tackle, be it jazz-fusion, acid-house, musique concrète, hip-hop, or breakcore, often on the same album, he has done so with such precision that his critics can only cite repeating himself as a point of contention.  And justly so- 2006’s Hello Everything played almost like an anthology of styles he has mastered since 1996’s Feed Me Weird Things, again with near-flawless results.  But while Jenkinson definitely delivers something new and different from his past endeavors with Just A Souvenir (2008, Warp Records), he reveals to the world that he is not a robot programmed to sequence psychotic drum explosions and stroke perfectly crafted jazz bass solos after all.   Nope, Squarepusher lives, breathes, and occasionally makes a mediocre album.

Just to be clear,

Just A Souvenir is Squarepusher’s prog-rock album.  Sure, he describes his inspiration as being a hallucination that he had about a fictional band playing an “ultra-gig” with time-warping guitars and coat hangers and whatnot but, when the cards are on the table, it’s a rock album.  (I would have actually been more excited to review this album had it simply been presented as a prog-rock album.  This lame “daydream” shit that Square’s trying to push on his website didn’t exactly keep me perched at my mailbox waiting for the CD to arrive.)    “Star Time 2” false-starts things off with a synthy lead part over Jenkinson’s usual bass acrobatics (the very same acrobatics that led The Red Hot Chili PeppersFlea to dub him as “the best bass player on earth”).  The song still retains some of Squarepusher’s past electronic experience, but with much more of a “live band” feel, a theme that continues throughout the album. “The Coathanger” is actually the proper start to the album.   Beginning with some very cheesy vocoded lyrics (“Behold the coat – Hanger!”), it doesn’t take long for Jenkinson to Jaco all over himself.  Much like other parts of the album, there are subtle electronic manipulations, but these noodlings take much of a back seat compared to Jenkinson’s past square-pushing work-outs.

From there, we move onto the first (and weakest) of three guitar solo/concrète interludes, “Open Society,” where picked acoustic guitar lines are warped and tape-edited in an attempt to conform to Jenkinson’s (most-likely) drug-induced vision.   “A Real Woman” sees Squarepusher at his poppiest, but in between the wacky vocoded lyrics (seriously, WTF?) and rock n’ roll drum fills, there are some really cool math-y transitions.  The intertwining bass and guitar lines are even reminiscent of The Grateful Dead’sSlipknot” or Phish’s best (read: early) epic jam tunes.  And the math-rock don’t stop there; ‘Pusher continues to get punky (“Delta-V”), funky (“Potential Govaner”), jammy (“Planet Gear”), and classic rock-y (“Tensor In Green”).  With its Ruth Underwood-style vibe solos, endless transitions, and overall grandiose presentation, “The Glass Road” screams “Frank Zappa!” before reducing itself into a distant drone.  But the real gems on Like A Souvenir are hidden in the back- after the last of the three previously mentioned guitar/concrète solos, “Fluxgate” (easily the best of the three, and also sounding extremely Zappa-esque after “The Glass Road”), Jenkinson offers up a loose free-jazzy guitar/bass exchange (“Duotone Moonbeam”) that recalls Bill Frisell’s early work- relaxed, unbound, but still a little edgy and tense.

Edgy” and “tense” are, in fact, great adjectives to describe much of Jenkinson’s back catalog.  But just when you find some blanket terms to describe the whole of an artist’s work, that same artist comes along and proves you wrong.  With “Quadrature,” we find Jenkinson more beautiful and restrained than ever before.  With tasteful guitar-bass duets bouncing over a playful yet relaxing jazz structure, “Quadrature” is truly the highlight of the album.   “Yes Sequitur” closes things out with a classical-style guitar solo free of any digital or tape-based manipulations whatsoever; a true rarity for a Squarepusher track.

Like A Souvenir’s weaknesses lie, not in its concept nor in its structure, but rather, it’s in the execution where the album fails.   One can only assume that Jenkinson plays every instrument on the album (as he has in the past), so it sounds like what it is: tight math-rock structures that should probably be played live by a band, but are instead recorded separately track-by-track.   Sure, it’s impressive that one person did it all, but it’s Squarepusher– we’re used to near perfection.  If Jenkinson could get a group of crack prog-rock musicians (L.A.’s Bad Dudes, perhaps?) to execute his songs for him to then manipulate, this album might be far better that it is.   It’s not sloppy; it’s just not as energetic as the sound of a group of people playing together can be.  Yet, we were okay with Squarepusher’s ability to coordinate his various personalities into mixed-genre musical spasms before but, at this point, he’s wearing too many hats, and we all know ‘Pusher’s not really the collaboratin’ type.

So the album isn’t a show-stopper, or even up to SP’s usual unusually high standards but, at least, we can sleep better at night knowing that there’s not some evil bass-playing robot out there attempting to enslave civilizations and destroy any audio it happens to come across in the process.