Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Passafist – Passafist (1994)

I’m surprised I didn’t throw this album out a long time ago. I’m not saying that it’s that repulsive, I’m just saying that it never really clicked with me, and it went away in a box for a long time, until recently, when it popped into my head and I had to dig it out of storage to give it another listen. Then I had to get on google and see exactly why I ever had a copy of the record in the first place.

Here’s the deal. There was this contemporary christian artist called Steve Taylor who had a decent solo career but pissed some people off for making fun of the jesus types a bit, including a song called “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” This was followed by a band called Chagall Guevara that’s best-described as CCM alt-rock, and their debut had some degree of mainstream crossover success. When label MCA did their annual juggling of the bands, CG faltered and split. Taylor went on to discover and produce Sixpence None the Richer, and that’s where his story ends very happily, but it’s where Passafist’s story begins.

Chagall Guevara guitarists Lynn Nichols and Dave Perkins reinvented themselves as the Caruso Twins, Waco and Reno, and picked up John Elliott of Dessau, a Nitzer Ebb-like dance/industrial band, and two members of the band Afrikan Dreamland. This is one of those combinations that could only work in a city like Nashville, filled with session players with lots of time on their hands and numbers in their rolodexes. The group somehow got a contract, and did this one-shot studio album, somehow capturing a brief sample of 1994, while also proving what kind of strange albums get made when semi-famous people from other bands somehow roll the dice correctly and get a chance to go into the studio.

The easiest way to describe this seven-track LP, aside from the staple “alternative,” would be to call it a very studio-sterile industrial, taking every possible approach to be as widely liked by as many people as possible. It seems like they wanted an album that would go to dance floors, but maybe yield a single, but get picked up by some people just cruising the CMJ for good college rock, but not offend the CCM crowd and possibly get a few purchases from old Chagall Guevara fans. That ultimately means the album is so soft and pliable, I’m not sure anyone could like it.

There are a lot of obvious tongue-in-cheek religious or social awareness issues painted across this album like ketchup on a four-year-old’s plate. Even the band name – Passafist – well, I’m not going to explain it, it’s so stupid. There’s a song called “Glock” that’s about guns. “Christ of the Nuclear Age” is like some kind of REM-like jolly singing, a quick departure from all of those electric drums and Skinny Puppy posturing on the other songs. All lyrics are heavily basted in effects processing, with the Korn-like “singing through a bullhorn” used frequently. Guitars are all over the songs, but more rhythmic than metallic. They even cover the Stones song “Street Fighting Man,” in a very pathetic way. Most of their songs sound like if Nokia or Ford or Revlon were making a commercial and needed “Street Fighting Man,” but couldn’t pay the Rolling Stones, so they got Anonymous Studio Band #57 to re-record the song, and a producer said “Make it edgier! we need to sell these cars to kids!” Add that to the fact that the seven songs here barely sound like they were recorded in the same genre, let alone by the same band, and you have a pretty uneven and unlistenable album.

The one song that is interesting closes up the album, and it’s called “The Dr. Is In.” It’s a ten-and-a-half minute song that’s based on and filled with samples from the dark comedy Doctor Strangelove, which is of course about nuclear war. At first, the song is very mellow, with slower drums, ebbing guitar, and almost spoken lyrics that sound like Roger Waters. It also uses an occasional chorus in the song, anonymously singing an “oooooh” here or there. It seriously sounds like some lost Pink Floyd song about nuclear war, maybe by the new ‘Floyd. It’s not bad, though. Then, as the “countdown” continues in the pseudo-concept song, the drums get more percussive, and it switches to more of the bullhorn lyrics, as the guitars get louder and frenetic. It all leads up to the big nuclear blast, and not a bad little song. It does beg the question as to why you’d write a song about nuclear war with the USSR a few years after the whole thing fell apart, but what can you do.

I don’t even know if you can get this album anymore, but even if someone handed it to you, it’s probably not worth more than a cursory scan of the first six tracks and a single listen of the last one. I enjoy listening to this only in that it’s one of those strange curiosities, like Crystal Pepsi or Laserdisc movies, that seemed like a really good time to an executive, and then he probably lost his job at the end of the year over it. I am glad I didn’t throw out this CD, but only because I’d still be trying to figure out who did “The Dr. Is In,” and I’d never find out.

Rating: 6 (but an 8 for the last song)