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Wednesday, 26 September 2007 00:00

Blessed, demented genius

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By Chris Cooper

The picture you see when you flip open the new Moolah Temple Stringband CD shows singer/guitarist/found-sound alchemist Jonathan Wertheim whacking some hapless little synthesizer to bits with a mallet. That’s almost all that needs to be said if you’re familiar with the kind of sonic de-(re?)construction he and Ian Moore have pursued since the days of Smoky Mountain Drum’n Bass, the project from which Moolah Temple was born.

I’ve heard their music described as something like “the sound of a television on the fritz in the next room of a creepy motel.” And yeah, it can sound like that. It can also sound like three separate songs drunkenly occurring at once, smacking into each other every so often. Or a nightmarish collage of disconcerting noises set to cheezoid beatbox rhythms- with vaguely Appalachian undercurrents.

You may think you’re hearing a crackling plastic wrapper and those little “hand farts” you make by clasping your palms tightly together just so during “Spiders Care, Babe,” followed by a spatula scraping a pan with eggs frying in it. You might think that Money On The Floor is the strangest and most wonderful thing to come out of this odd little town in nearly forever.

It seems that an early goal for Wertheim and Moore was simply to reinterpret old time music in thoroughly drastic and unbecoming ways, and sure enough they’ve done a lot of that. That both are “legit” musicians — make no assumption that these musical oddities aren’t driven by focused intent and skill — reminds us that mere technique will often take a backseat to imagination, twisted as it may sometimes be. The moments of normalcy, if you can describe them as so, reveal artists that are perfectly capable of doing it “right,” but that absolutely cannot keep their hands off the “freak” button.

“Dysentery Pesthouse” rolls in with a haunted jungle soundscape broiling under Moore’s lilting, sometimes lurching fiddle. After a few bars, the tremoloed guitar from a Morricone film shows up. For a band that described their earliest recordings as “no-fi,” there’s an awful lot happening here, and a remarkable use of placement in the stereo field. Sounds seem to appear from over your shoulder, from over in the corner and above your head.

The careful reassembly of what appears to be a pulpit dissertation on the inevitability of hard times in “Blues Tour” is momentarily interrupted by a snippet of from one of those greasy QVC salesmen expressing his excitement about their next “product.” Then it’s back to the sampled mantra “hard times... hard time blues...” which by now has grown in intensity and purpose. Maybe I’m taking this track a little too seriously, but damn — when an artist finds a way to say what they need to say in such a striking way, it’s hard to deny the urge to dissect it and see what makes it tick.

As if to remind you that they don’t always construct their music in the most non-traditional ways possible, “(I’m Not) Looking For The Devil Tonight” ties more found sound (this time a late nite Christian radio sermon) to a loopy acoustic blues that’s wonderfully played. “Trash Mtn.” wanders into remix territory, with the prerequisite echoed atmospherics and sparsely arranged but hypnotic rhythms. It goes out with a bang — rather, a thermonuclear explosion. “Falstaff AZ” stumbles along, rickety as can be for almost nine minutes, at times sounding as though it was filtered through a faulty phone connection from Venus. Then there’s that flatulent duck noise on beats one and three (mostly) that I won’t even try to explain.

The cliché of “mad scientists” is the easiest, but lamest way to sum up what Moolah Temple is about. Wertheim and Moore may be a little nuts, for sure, but it’s their skill for harnessing that lunacy and hammering it into a collection of aural experiences as striking as those on Money On The Floor that makes this so much fun (and scary, itchy, paranoia inducing, etc...) to hear. Impossible to categorize, pigeonhole or otherwise shove into a compartment and label in any way, Money On The Floor actually makes me want to return for a moment to the “star” rating system of CD quality, but that doesn’t quite fit. So let’s say these guys get five sun bleached cow skulls found in the red dust of some gravel road on the hottest day of your life. That means it’s great, by the way.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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