ZARTAN - Sidekicks
Depending on who you ask, I am either here to reveal a thin layer of truth, or spoil the joke. Either way, don’t be fooled by SunShip’s catalog hyperbole about this album. Call it "Spoken word with ambient interludes" if you like, but where I come from, we call this a prank call record.
Zartan is a side project of Cock E.S.P.’s Matt Bacon. If you’re an obsessive collector of E.S.P. albums (as I can be on occasion), you might have heard a few of these before, or at least calls of a similar nature (the oafishly nasty call documented on "We Mean It This Time" is unfortunately not here). Hmm, although I’ve claimed in the past not to have much patience for prank call records, I’m reviewing this here, and in a month or two, I’ll be dripping some ink for Andy Earles’ (of the megaton music rag Cimmarron Weekend) prank record, "Just Farr A Laugh." Gregg Turkington’s "Great Phone Calls" record is a staple in this household, and I keep meaning to send John Trubee a stupid huge money order for some of his classic prank call tapes. I guess I like ‘em after all! Hey, if the foo shits…
Unlike big-budget and high-concept routines like the Jerky Boys (who, for some reason, never really knocked me out…it all seemed too staged and contrived), Zartan is unpolished, unprofessional (nearly ½ of these attempts are nearly derailed due to a fit of giggles), and very improvisational. A good prank call sometimes veers off into another direction when it’s obvious the original plan isn’t making any headway. Which I guess makes it like a jazz solo (hey! music talk!). Sometimes, it’s all about stumbling down the dark alleys to uncover the truth behind the material. Check the way Matt’s character taunts an inexperienced metal DJ, first by asking him to play Skynard (which is mis-heard as "Skinner," a decent name for a metal band, actually!) and Allman Brothers, then later switching over to an enthusiastic grindcore fan ("I like Carcass, man, "Symphonies of Sickness," man, dude") who hasn’t heard this up and coming "thrash" fan called Metallica. Like a friend who told me he’d rather listen to the Firesign Theatre improvise on their radio show than read through one of their scripted records, sometimes its the thrill of hearing someone push too far, and have to dig their way out that makes this the most fun.
A big, big warning, though…much of this stuff is VERY nasty, very mean-spirited, frequently creepy, more than a smidge politically incorrect, and often downright stupid. There is no class in this recording. Bacon’s also sometimes got a bad habit (much like the Jerky Boys) of beating a good line into the ground. For instance, he calls a butcher shop and asks if they are still offering steaks for $2 a pound on special. They are. He then calls a competitor (then another, then another), and asks their prices. When one says the same steak is $5 a pound through their store, "Bo-Seefus" (for that’s his name) howls, "Five dollars! I could get that down the street for TWICE AS LESS!" Funny line, but then he uses it on six different stores, and it becomes like hearing some loudmouth at a bar tell the same joke to five different people within earshot. By the end, you’re ready to break glass. Still, even in moments like this, Zartan knows how to grab a moment and really wring something amazing out of it. While ranting to one butcher, obviously someone who owns the place and values good meat, he starts telling the guy that cooking steak "well done" is the only way to go! "What’s that shit, medium rare?!?! You gotta make that shit burned on the outside, burned on the inside. Now that’s the way to cook a steak!" This sends the guy into an old fashioned tizzy, the same sort you can simulate by telling a twee-pop fan that "Honey Honey" by ABBA crushes the entire St. Etienne catalog, or asking for a gin & tonic at the Prodigal Son ("I suppose you want fruit with that…PUSSY!").
If you take on crank call records mirrors that of John Trubee, namely that "crank calls should only be performed on the rich and spoiled, and others that deserve all the abuse in the world," this will probably not do much for you. It’s frequently vindictive and hateful, and often tortures what sound to be some very kind-hearted souls. If, however, you’ve ever taken perverse glee in anything from burning ants with a magnifying glass to intentionally giving someone bad directions to a hospital, this will be the most-played CD this month. Just because you aren’t laughing (or doing that nervous laugh when you know it’s not right that you find this so damn funny) doesn’t mean it’s not great comedy. As Michael O’Donoghue once said, "Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy."