Review Summary: types of kisses where teeth collide.
Now THIS is something completely different. One of the cultest of all cult albums, Philosophy of the World is probably even weirder than any Captain Beefheart-album you own, as it almost sounds like an interrupted transmission from outer space. The Shaggs consisted of three sisters (Dorothy, lead guitar and vocals; Betty, rhythm guitar and vocals; Helen, drums) who, “guided” by their ambitious father, took up music lessons and eventually also recorded an album. When the album came off the presses, the majority of the copies were stolen, so the poorly distributed album very quickly became a forgotten item…. until Frank Zappa declared it one of his all-time favorites a few years later, which triggered a true Shaggs-cult that went on throughout the years, eventually also resulting in a 1999 reissue, which tried to reinstate the original. A prime example of ‘outsider music,’ Philosophy sounds as if it’s played either by complete ignorants or avant-garde musicians (for a long time I thought it was a hoax, instigated by some obscure free jazz collective, and you have to admit that the girls on the cover look a bit ‘weird’, too). If you thought that Jad Fair, Jandek and Daniel Johnston had already been making very personal and awkward music that seems to defy all musical conventions and logic, then The Shaggs’ approach might be a truly inspiring treat for you.
The girls sing without any harmony, tuneless, and with a weird phrasing. It sometimes sounds as if you’re overhearing a class of Chinese children singing American standards. The subject matter ranges from the equality of all people (“Philosophy of the World”), to a disappeared dog (“My Pal Foot Foot”), and other existential concerns (“Things I Wonder,” “Why Do I Feel?,” etc). Helen Wiggin’s drum kit apparently consists only of a snare drum, a floor tom and one cymbal (hi-hat), while her patterns can be called poly-rhythmic I guess, as they are as steady as an Elisabeth Taylor marriage, suddenly shifting from one rhythm to the next. On top of that she plays the weirdest drum fills imaginable (take that, Phil Collins), seemingly unaware of the song’s underlying structure. The competence of Dorothy and Betty is similarly limited, as they strum their guitars in a totally incoherent way, playing false notes and inventing new stuff as they go along. And it is exactly this that seems to be the weirdest aspect of their music: it sounds as if these girls weren’t exposed to any music at all between their 2nd and 15th year. Somehow, they seem to have a basic idea of what music should be like (a basic rhythm, melody, ‘different parts,’ a grammar of the music), but at the same time they also seem confused about it, as verses and chorus seem almost indistinguishable and randomly placed. The result of it all is one of the most incompetent albums imaginable, a ramshackle effort in which nothing is what it should be, an effort that defies almost every rule. And while some people thought it was one of the most liberating and inspiring albums in pop history, I can only endure this in small doses, and while I’m doing that, I probably make some funny faces. Therefore, yours sincerely considers this album as a curiosity any music fan should hear at least once, but it’s not one that you will ‘enjoy’ on a regular basis. Unless having the freakiest collection of your circle of acquaintances or driving your housemates mad is your ultimate goal.