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Bobby Conn - King for a Day

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Artist: Bobby Conn

Album: King for a Day

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Feb. 5, 2007

Fascinating, perplexing, sometimes off-putting but more often funny, Bobby Conn continues to chart a very unusual path through contemporary music. His King for a Day, the sixth solo album following the break-up of the late-'80s Conducent, is, as always, something of a concept piece, with several cuts aimed squarely at celebrity culture. Where 2004's prog-inflected The Homeland concerned itself with the deceptions of warmongers, King for a Day is all about Tom, Katie and Suri. But while the focus has shifted, the view is much the same. Delusion, deception, disingenousness are constants. No matter where you look in Conn-land, someone is either lying or seriously mistaken.

The album opens ostenstatiously - literally with the clang of a gong - kicking off eight minutes of string-riffing, conga-beats and biblical choruses. Even by Conn standards, "Vanitas" is over the top, its lyrics quoting Ecclesiastes (that "There is nothing new under the sun" line -- in Latin) and its music quoting jazz, samba, new classical and spandex metal. Twelve different people are credited on the cut - the full line-up for this overstuffed and confounding album - and listening to the piece, there could be even more.

Conn told me recently that he sees "Vanitas" as a kind of test. Anyone lacking the attention span for its glorious complexity and over-the-limit-ness can stop right there. Still, those who don't are rewarded with the first English-language lyrics of King for a Day immediately afterwards, the taunting "I feel old-fashioned when we fuck in the dark" (in "When the Money's Gone"). You have to check your expectations at the door, hang onto the claim ticket and hope they'll still be there when you're done with this album.

Conn's band draws from a whole litany of Chicago area outfits. His musical and romantic partner Monica Boubou plays the violin and sings alongside other Glass Gypsies holdovers Colby Starck and Sledd. He's also recruited a trio of death metal Christian musicians for King for a Day: Jim Cooper, Jonny Steinmeier and Karl Doerfer all come from the band Detholz! (out of fundamentalist stronghold Wheaton College). And Josh Johanpeter from Mahjongg plays drums.

The result is a series of songs that are seriously well-constructed and complicated - yet deeply, deeply odd. It's impossible to get a grip on Conn's intent here. You simply couldn't orchestrate these multi-layered extravaganzas without paying full attention, much less coax a 12-person orchestra into mini-operatic unison if you weren't committed on some level. And yet despite all evidence of musical focus and discipline, Conn's tongue is never very far from his cheek. He puts the title track down to a bizarre "toe-sucking incident" on a European tour last summer. And asked about influences, he brings up the Dark Shadows videos that he and his band watched continually during the recording of King for a Day, alongside more conventional inspirations like Ennio Morricone.

Of course, when the results are this entertaining, context is secondary. His "Twenty-One" brilliantly skewers a certain type of celebrity hanger-on, the young acolyte who will do anything to attain cool by proximity - and it does so to a simmering, menacing, wah-laced and sax smouldering neo-jazz beat that would do Lydia Lunch proud. Later, "I'm Through With My Ego" perfectly captures the false modesty sometimes displayed on Entertainment Tonight, with an obviously self-obsessed A-lister admitting "I'm just a very simple man." "Anybody" with its frantic, arena-metal riffs and smarmy delivery would be a vicious dissection of the Tom and Katie Cruise story...if it were not so very funny.

Yet it's "Punch the Sky" - the short, insane, mostly spoken word rant - that rules the day. Here's Bobby's disembodied voice, flitting from one speaker (or earphone) to the other, not even pausing for breath, as he transforms himself into a crazed informercial spokesman, someone who claims to remember the dinosaurs and knows the secret to eternal life. "I have a high performance lifestyle/I use all eight cylinders all the time/And I want you to come with me..and punch the sky." It's a clever parody, an obvious send-up, and yet, as with most of Conn's work, part of you can't help but take it at face value. Maybe he should start a cult. Maybe he already has.

By Jennifer Kelly

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