Physical Illusion is the moniker that Nick Karn, founder and curator of popular music review website Music Junkies Anonymous, has chosen for his rather deranged musical venture. The best description that I can come up with for his music is this: Nick plays a permanently-out-of-tune acoustic guitar or a Casio keyboard and sings, screams, or speaks some lyrics that are usually weird or funny (often both). His guitar playing sounds like Dot Wiggins of the Shaggs crossed with some of Sonic Youth's more out-there moments. The keyboard work is more conventional, but he still manages to coax disturbingly frightening noises out of it too. If you want to hear his music, contact him, not me!
lineup: Nick Karn (vocals, keyboards, guitar, good friend)
review index: The Illuminated Road / Songs from the Bottom of the Hill / I Shouldn't Have Stayed in Bed / The Construction of Crap / Physical Illusion
missing albums: none
apex: I Shouldn't Have Stayed in Bed
nadir: The Construction of Crap (disc two, at least)
overlooked: this feature doesn't work when the albums aren't even released!
Best songs: Blue Sphere Jam, The Dragon, The Castle's Over There Dammit
Worst songs: Now I Can Go Home, Shut the Front Door, Poetry in Stop Motion
This is what you call an inauspicious debut. Sonically, this is very different from the following albums: there's an electric guitar and a different keyboard providing a lot of the noises.
So let's look at side one. "Poetry in Stop Motion" is the opening track, and it switches between instrumental and song sections without managing to cohere into a cogent piece. It does feature a few whacked-out Sonic Youth-esque guitar flagellations, and a nice keyboard ending. "Ian is a Wanker" is better, mainly because it's more focused. Nick's English accent isn't very convincing, but he does throw in some cool keyboard bits. After this is "Shut the Front Door". Not much to say here. It's irritating, and the most notable bit is the first part, which features a neat keyboard drone. "Blue Sphere Jam" ends the first side, and I think it's the best track on here, a calm, ambient keyboard instrumental.
The second half of the album is some sort of medieval story thing. I won't go through all the tracks... Ah, heck I will. I don't like "Edward's Pool". "The Dragon" is a top-notch song. Very spooky guitar part. "The Castle's Over There, Dammit" is also pretty good. "Now I Can Go Home" is 18 minutes long. The best parts are: a couple minutes in, where Nick gets a great acoustic bass-type sound from his guitar, and twelve or so minutes in, where there's a pretty keyboard part. Most of it I could do without.
All in all, decent album.
Best songs: The Open Window, Dark Sky Theme, The Worst Song Ever Written
Worst songs: Clouds and Their Disasterous Consequences, Disoriented Express, Stream of Unconsciousness
Quite possibly the most normal of Nick's albums, not that that's saying much. There are ten tracks on this one, and only one goes past six minutes -- that's friggin' pop song length!
Okay, so this one starts with "The Open Window", one of Nick's best 'normal' songs. The lyrics are humorously pretentious, and there's a neat, almost-funky middle part, which is always good. "Dark Sky Theme" is pretty good too, with some weird-ass ending. You know what they say -- if you can't make it catchy, make it weird. And what else is good? The instrumental intro to "Atmospheric Cleansing, Drowsy". "The Worst Song Ever Written" is not. And there's a drum solo on "Inspiration Morning"! Ain't that weird?
Nothing in this crazy world makes sense, particularly a couple songs on here: "Clouds and Their Disasterous Consequences", despite the great song-title, is mainly Nick freaking out for five minutes, and "Disoriented Express" is an annoying multi-tracked spoken word piece. And despite a couple humorous bits, "Stream of Unconsciousness" isn't as captivating as "Leaves of Green" from the following album. (Yeah, I can reference stuff you haven't read yet! What're you gonna do about it?!)
I suppose you expect some ending sentence here. Well, I'm not gonna do it. I'm sick of providing closure for all your little problems. Get off my back, Mr. Co-dependant!
Best songs: Leaves of Green, 5000 Angkor Wat Light Bulbs, Return of the Ripoffs
Worst songs: none! hahaha, that's right, none!!!
I Shouldn't Have Stayed in Bed is the avant-garde yang to Songs from the Bottom of the Hill's pop yin. A staggeringly small number of songs (six) is complemented by a reliance on less-than-traditional song stylings.
So this time I shall cover my favorites first: "Leaves of Green" is a six-minute take on Dylanesque rambling folk songs. The words are as absurd as one might expect from Nick -- sample lyric: "I sent a piece of paper to the copy machine / the paper turned from red to green / there's a basket in this room / that spells my dumb doom / it's now 9:32 / oh man, what do I do? / I feel like eating a shoe". Then there's the opening track; it starts out normal enough, with a lovely ascending piano riff, then veers off into a weird diatribe about Mountain Dew. Also on the kickass songs list is "5000 Angkor Wat Light Bulbs", incorporating the lyrics from the incredibly popular Yes song "Angkor Wat". Except, instead of Jon Anderson's high-pitched vocals, you get Nick's varispeeded-down vocals.
Heck, even track three isn't as bad as usual: it's a freaky multi-tracked vocal piece with some choppy organ chords. And though the first half of "Tuesday Night Visitor" has some annoying synth noises, it's redeemed with the piano in the second half.
Okay, now that I've covered all that other stuff, let's talk side-long. As in, the title track. It's good. There, we've talked about it. Rock on, and keep watching the skis. Next album?
Best songs: see below, dearie
Worst songs: um, disc two?
Now here's a long album. And it's a concept album, too! Something along the lines of Quadrophenia meets In Search of the Lost Chord meets Cruising With Reuben and the Jets. If that makes any sense to you, I congratulate you, sir or madam.
Anyway, there's a heck of a lot of songs on here. I'll try to focus on a few of the highlights in the paragraph you're currently reading (that is to say, this one, unless of course you can somehow read entire pages at a time). Actually, I lied, it's the following paragraph. Starting out with disc one:
"An Answer from Beyond" - This song is a parody of Genesis' Calling All Stations, particularly the title track. It actually comes out as more interesting than most of said album; the really interesting thing is how the song plays out a mopey fake-depressed atmosphere, then ends with a tortured yell that is actually one of the best screams of despair I've ever heard on a record.
"Six Hours in the Temple" - Here we have a Doors parody. Yeah, easy target, but Nick's Casio keyboard sounds a heck of a lot better than Ray Manzarek's cheeseball organ. Also, the words are funny. "YOU MUST BE REBORN IN THE PRESCHOOL STORY OF ACID TRIPPING!!!"
"Toad on the Road" - Continuing with the Doors theme, this song has a "Roadhouse Blues" ripoff riff, and lyrics from a children's book. And a bunch of freaky keyboard noises near the end. Oddly catchy in spite of all that.
"Soggy Street / Casey Bad Ass" - This one's a collaboration with Casey Brennan, and is an absurd multi-part story-song that ends in, well, more weirdness.
"The Balls of Rock" - Here's another parody, this time of AC/DC. The chorus melody is lifted from "I Can't Drive 55" too, I think. Ah, who cares? It's hilarious!
Disc two, I'm afraid, contains very little of note -- it's more irritating than funny. Sorry, Nick.
Best songs: Tubbles Nobbins and Bob, A Menace That Should Be Destroyed, World War Version 3.0
Worst songs: Dave Is Boring/Apocalypse Wall, This Space For Rent
Possibly due to his fans' less-than-thrilled response to the sprawling double-album The Construction of Crap, Nick shut himself in his room with his keyboard for a long time to produce Physical Illusion, possibly his most mature work to date. I say "most mature", but it's a relative thing when the first song features a bunch of overdubbed throwing-up noises. And that's a shame, since the actual song is a pretty catchy pop tune.
Oh look, I've made it to the "individual song" portion of the review already. Okay, let's examine side one first. After the, er, explosion that is "Vomiting Man" comes "How to Travel Without Going Anywhere", which I have to like, if only because I came up with that song title. Musically it's a tribute of sorts to Brian Eno, complete with a completely absurd 'ambient' section ("I don't know about you, but I think space is kinda overrated"). If you feel the need for, uh, traditional songwriting, then try "A Menace That Should Be Destroyed", featuring a sort-of-kinda-anthemic-but-not-quite synth horn riff, or maybe the fairly-straight cover of "Lucifer Sam" (except for the ending, which interpolates everyone's favorite Syd Barrett song: "yes I'm THIIIIIIIIIIIINGKING"). Do I have to go through all the songs? No? Okay, good, I want to skip ahead, because "Tubbles, Nobbins and Bob" is quite possibly the greatest song Nick has ever produced. Take a dance beat, add some synths and a bunch of piano soloing, and have Nick singing (well, close it it, anyway) some of his usually-incomprehensible lyrics over top of it, and you end up with an incredible mess that is also incredibly catchy. You cannot deny it. Actually, side one of this album is probably the most consistent slab of music that Nick's produced in his entire career as a mildly insane WRC member.
I think this means we have to go to side two now. It's a slow start: "Dave Is Boring/Apocalypse Wall" and "This Space For Rent" don't do a whole lot, and "The Square Root of Time", aside from the possible parody of "Fitter, Happier" at the beginning, is more goofy than anything ("the square root of TIIIIME! is infinity!" -- art-rock, Nick?). Thankfully things pick up with the trucker song "Monotonous Road" and the obligatory Casey Brennan collaboration "World War Version 3.0", which is pure Physical Illusion silliness. And I mean that in a good way. "Renaissance Fair Idiot" is short but poignant, except for the fact that anyone who participates in a Renaissance fair is an idiot. Except for you, because people who read my site are very intelligent and sexy and successful people. "Canadian Lake" is a pleasant bit of "Treefingers"-style ambiance, and then there's a couple more songs and I'm getting sick of writing down titles so I'll just finish up.
This is a definite improvement over TCoC, and were it not for the lackluster side two, I would readily nominate it as the best Physical Illusion album. Now all Nick needs to do is get some decent recording equipment!!!
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