Let’s Hear It for Lunch Cult
Truly original musical artists don’t just challenge their audience — they confound them. They make fans wonder aloud, What the fuck is this crap? The most famous example is, of course, Bob Dylan, who’s done this numerous times over the decades: going electric, releasing Self Portrait, going Gospel, performing concerts comprised almost entirely of standards and other covers.
When Bob pulled that last stunt a couple years ago at Thompson’s Point, I must admit I was disappointed. Sometimes a perplexing performance or album reveals its brilliance over time. Other times, you’re just pissed you wasted 15 or 50 bucks.
Which brings us to the latest release by Lunch Cult. I really liked the prog-punk “garbage rock” (their term) on this Portland trio’s 2014 Living Legends Mixtape, and their self-titled 2015 release, which “cleaned up” (my term) that sound, is one of the best local albums of this decade. So I was, frankly, baffled when the group played Congress Square Park this past September as part of the Waking Windows festival.
Where was the rock, “garbage” or otherwise? What happened to the free-jazz freakouts and wild shifts of tone and tempo? Instead, we got Jake Lichter crooning cruise-ship schmaltz at a keyboard the entire time, while fellow multi-instrumentalist Luke Macdonald confined himself to the drums, and the new guy, Luke’s brother Angus (who replaced the excellent Nick Thompson-Brown when the fellas went to college), stubbornly refused to shred anything but cheese. I was confused and more than mildly bummed out.
Then, a few days later, Jake sent me the new record, and lo, mine ears were opened! Lunch Cult is actually cooler and more fun than ever, and just as brilliant as before. The six songs on Let’s Hear It for Lunch Cult sound like lounge-jazz balladry when played in the background (or heard in the middle of a city), but give ’em an actual listen and you’ll be repeatedly and pleasantly surprised — this shit is great.
I should’ve known. Many, if not most lounge-jazz acts are actually top-notch players who have to entertain the cocktail class just to pay the bills. Lunch Cult’s slumming in this genre can’t hide the fact these guys are ace musicians. The Macdonald Brothers, in particular, play with the taste and restraint of real pros. And all three can jump genres with ease, as they do on the opener, “If You Wanted To,” which briefly breaks into a pogo-rock gallop. The next song, “Sure Does,” spirals into a ’70s prog-jazz black hole about halfway through, as does “Take Back My Heart,” which eventually emerges riding some heavy guitar riffs.
The lovely samba “Waikuku,” about a romance that sours in the tropics, is a winner, as is the spritely yet wistful closer, “Road of Photographs.” But “Trachtatus” takes the cake. The title refers to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1921 masterwork, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (college!), which I won’t pretend to understand. Luckily, you don’t need a degree to appreciate the genius at work here. The chorus is pure pop candy, and the lyrics of the stanzas are among the best lines on this wickedly witty album. “People want to famous, ’cause they’re assholes / They’re propelled by their egos to be loved,” Lichter sings. “But if you want to make a movie, I would gladly take part.”
Listening to Trouble No More, the Bootleg Series release from last year that documented Dylan’s born-again period, I realized that among all the rock stars of his era who were then struggling (and failing) to remain relevant in the wake of the punk revolution, Dylan’s embrace of Evangelism was actually the most genuinely punk-rock move of them all — a total rejection not just of society, with its discos and cocaine and greed, but secular reality itself (“I’m hangin’ on to a solid rock made before the foundation of the world,” “Don’t put my faith in nobody, not even a scientist,” etc.) Lunch Cult’s already done the punk thing and the post-punk thing, and now they’ve punked everyone who ever liked them with this six-song suite of cheese that defies and ultimately exceeds expectations. There’s no telling where they’ll go from here — and thank God for that.