Review: Mike Patton and Jean-Claude Vannier – “Corpse Flower”

I first heard vocal shape-shifter Mike Patton collaborate with John Erik Kaada, the Norwegian composer, back in 2004. It was, even in the light of a performer known for not being able to sit still creatively, a departure, and, yes yes, especially for someone who cut his teeth on the alt-rock of Faith No More and the more ambitious, though still rock-focused, work of Mr. Bungle, Fantomas and Tomahawk. (Yes, and others.)

The duo Kaada/Patton’s first recorded work, Romances, became, oddly enough, a kind of master-class in subtlety and restraint, an examination of diagetic texture as much as it was a placement of question marks on the separation between sound-samples and organic performance. Today, Patton’s Ipecac Recordings is releasing a new collaboration between Patton and a noted foreign composer, another unexpected turn in a journey filled with them. And, here, the new duo illustrates its genius by both evoking the composer’s most known works while taking them out for a new spin.

Corpse Flower, a hungry beast available on multiple formats, sees Patton teaming up with the renowned French composer Jean-Claude Vannier, he of Gainsbourg songwriting notoriety. (The two met, in fact, at a Gainsbourg event, and members of the backing band on the LP performed there, too.) But while the colors on this thing are eclectic, even sometimes neon-infused, there is a sense of rumination, even of plaintiveness or remorsefulness, in the work that you don’t often hear in Patton’s caffeine-fueled pop-mutant oeuvre – or in great works like Vannier’s L’enfant Assasin des Mouches. Yes, opener “Ballad C.3.3” (Wilde, mic drop) has some volcanic activity to it, but more of the wonderful 12-track offering, on which the pair toiled with the Atlantic separating them, is consumed with moments like the beatnik jazz-slinkiness of “Insolubles” or “Chansons d’Amour,” a lulling and torchy piano ballad, vaguely Romantic and accented by Patton’s smoky husk of a voice.

That’s not to say this thing doesn’t howl or call to mind the spirit of Gainsbourg, the dearly departed who (in a way) brought together the duo. “A Schoolgirl’s Day,” a rather morbid narrative (when you get to the end, you’ll know what I mean), is a fractured-mirror take on the lost Gainsbourg/Vannier score to Les Chemins de Katmandou as filtered through the post-modern murk of Patton’s noisy tetema.

But the record’s best moments are utterly haunted and haunting, say the guitar-led and pitch-perfect orchestral piece “Yard Bull” (a song that revels in its beauty). Then, there’s the dramatic flourishes of the record’s title track, which hints, in passing, at sleight-of-hand Morricone-isms. (Even though these guys keep a lid on the thing from boiling over – it’s very composed, very 60s-poppishness – there is at least one segue that flirts with psychedelics.) Only on “On Top of the World” does the Patton of Faith No More rear his head, then mostly in the form of “Easy”-style croonery. (It’s not all high-class Commodores-R&B high-mindedness, though. Lyrical sample: “If I get to the top of the world/ I’ll take a shit right down on this Earth/ and if I make it all of the way/ I’ll take a piss down into your face.” Lyrics elsewhere on the LP are equally and wonderfully vulgar.)

Ever the shape-shifter, Patton again has found a new skin on his collaboration with Vannier. Gainsbourg would approve — this suits both of them mighty well. – Justin Vellucci, MusicTAP, Sept. 13, 2019

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