About two minutes into “Who’s This Dude?” off Need New Body’s third album, Where’s Black Ben?, a heavily processed robot voice announces that “this is the part of the party when you just can’t tell if you feel all right.” Right there, you’ve got a description of the entire album. Superficially it’s a lot of fun, as bubbly Kraftwerk rhythms, trippy accordion jams and spastic vocals tend to be. But Need New Body engages in so many obnoxious musical pranks that you end up uncomfortably torn over whether to dance along or throttle every member of the band. After four spins, I’m leaning toward the latter.
The problem isn’t Need New Body’s pranksterism per se — plenty of bands have peddled psychedelic, style-shifting buffoonery that works, most successfully the Boredoms, which is an obvious influence. What makes the Philadelphia collective so annoying is that it confuses a healthy jones for experimentation with a license to do whatever the hell it wants. For every genuinely groovy track, there is an asinine throwaway. “Brite tha’ Day” starts off the album with a white-boy faux-rap so smarmy you’ll wish you never sold back those MC Paul Barman records. Having gone to college in Philly, I was charmed at first by the band’s simplistic ode to South Street, “So St Rx.” But after one listen I miss school even less than before.
Where’s Black Ben? isn’t totally worthless. “Poppa B” backs the optimistic lyric “I still have my dancing shoes, my dancing shoes” with a lovely piano and banjo accompaniment, and the entrancing “Outer Space” boasts some fantastic free-jazz blowing by Marshall Allen, Tyrone Hill and Elliott Levin of the Sun Ra Arkestra. “Badoosh + Seagull War = Die” sounds a lot like the last record by tourmates Hella, and it succeeds on sheer weirdness value. But that there’s a dollop of good material buried underneath the tripe only makes the album’s failings that much worse, as if Need New Body is sabotaging itself.
Maybe it’s best to look at this philosophically. Just like our commitment to free speech means that we have to put with the KKK, my support of Need New Body’s musical experimentation means I should accept whatever they decide to include on their album, whether I deem it “good” or not. Still, it’s hard to argue with the facts: I made the nine-year-old kid that I baby sit listen to “Mouthbreather,” which features a guy lamely repeating “Check, check. 1-2-3” over a two-bit Atari beat. His response? “This isn’t funny.” Such is the price of freedom.