the hallucinatory world of colonel jeffrey pumpernickel

That term ‘strident wet nurse’ was completely Bob’s. When I first told him about the project he said, ‘I’ve got a song for you–Strident Wet Nurse’– and then proceeded to sing me the song including the guitar loops.”  – Chris Slusarenko


by john richen


It must of been the Isolation Drills that shook everything up. “Skills Like This” from the upcoming Guided By Voices album was blowing through my headphones and the ground started rollin’ and tumblin’ and if a big pile of stones would have fallen on my head and finished me off it wouldn’t have been an inappropriate end, all things considered. They tell me it was the largest quake in the Pacific Northwest since 1949 — a huge underwater plate shift, 30 miles beneath the Sound. It would have been worse if it wasn’t so far under water.

So far underwater… thirty miles beneath the sound…of guitars, and an underwater battle…a Bud-clutching madman doing the Caligula stomp across a stage littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts…the Colonel emerges, as if from a dream. A bit of undigested beef perhaps. Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel that is….

…Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel? Who is Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel?

Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel is the both the central figure and title of a “concept album” that fell into my possession the March day following the great underwater quake. It’s the creation of local musician Chris Slusarenko (Cavemannish Boys, Sprinkler, Svelt ). Chris scripted out a story board, breaking the hero’s epic into fragments which he then forwarded to 16 bands to take a crack at interpreting musically. Piece of cake, right? Well, not when you consider just who he managed to bring on board for the project. The aforementioned GBV, Quasi, The Minus Five, Grandaddy, Ann Magnuson, Dave Rick and Stephen Malkmus are just some of the stable of indie talent packed into this fantastically tweaked musical odyssey.

Guided By Voices leads the intrepid traveler head first into this bizarre play with trademark aplomb, AC/DC power-chords, and ominous sirens wailing. No strangers to puzzling narratives and imperviously twisted characterizations, GBV’s “Titus and Strident Wet Nurse” introduces young Jeffrey as both gifted and cursed. Away we go, trying like hell to keep up with the class, but quickly getting lost in the atmospheric fog of Malkmus’ “Blue Rash Intact (quarantined–strong hallucinations due to severe allergies).” An earlier hypothesis that a stroll with Col. Jeff Pump (as he is referred to in Richard Meltzer’s pointed liner notes) on his journeys was something akin to reading James and the Giant Peach after ingesting a fistful of peyote pods is something that, 10 listens later, I’m not sure I can improve much on. I mean, at one point Ann Magnuson’s enduring some kind of freak-out involving John Entwhistle, the Discovery Channel, and running for her life from a righteously pissed momma grizzly. Moments later cows are mooing and a heart is beating over the sound of R2-D2 chirps and elephant shrieks — all kinds of weird Pink Floyd-like shit is going down. Meltzer attempts, albeit briefly, to describe what the hell is going on in this wild tale of royalty by birthright, severe allergies, hallucinations, prostitutes and squirming phallic centipedes, before giving up with a shrug.

Not to fear however, because in the midst of all this mayhem an amazing seed germinates. It takes root quickly as we’re drawn into the drama of Jeffrey Pumpernickel’s unfortunate circumstance, looking beyond the storyline’s tricky narrative. What now intrigues us is the seamless movement from one track to the next — the way this ragtag assortment of pieces clip together so effectively. Through a slow, methodical metamorphosis the music itself takes over Jeffrey’s tale from the convoluted lyrical outline. This realization is made even more impressive in that the artists were not privy to the work being done by their co-conspirators, a fact Slusarenko alludes to in an e-mail to Smokebox: “It is true that the artists did not get to hear the other music, but I would often tell the artists what the goal of some of the pieces as links might be. For instance, Ann’s goal was to play some sort of doctor figure who would get the Colonel out of the pumpernickel allergy freakout and put him out into the outside world for the first time. So she came up with Dr. Mom from there. I had hoped the album would flow as well as it does, but I knew all it took was one motion to throw the project off sonically. I was very careful when choosing who I wanted to be involved because of that.”

As with all good folklore, there is an ethereal, smoke-like quality to the proceedings. Sound and word swirl mist-like through your subconscious vision. If at times it seems as though you’re slipping in and out of one of Jeffrey’s pronounced hallucinations, realize that this surreal quality is no accident. Deconstructing Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, if you find it necessary at all, is a cerebral exercise. Because of its interesting sequencing and sonic wash, the album seems destined to become a headphone classic. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but even when considering the fistful of fantastic tunes here — Quasi’s “Which Side Are You On, Colonel?;” The Minus 5’s Lennonesque “The Great Divider (My Ruffled Sleeve);” and Grandaddy’s “IFO” really grab hold of you — the sum of the collected works far surpasses it’s multitude of shining individual efforts. The color and emotion added by comic artists Joe Sacco, Kim Deitch and Peter Bagge add even more substance to this multi-tiered “concept.” It may sound cliche, but the team effort here reigns triumphant. From start to finish, this is a very, very cool record.


Originally published:
Issue Seven
March 2001


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