There is a longstanding tradition in counterculture music of naming your band something so off-putting or so inane that it dares the world to dis and dismiss it. This balance of power between off-putting and inane ebbs and flows. Over the last eight years or so, there has been a rash of bands with “Fuck” in their names, but recently the tide has been turning to the absurd. Whatever Brains, as a name, is right there among the top of the current crop of calculatedly idiotic band names like Wild Yaks, Stepdad, Big Ups, and Metz. Also, like many of those bands, the name is appropriate in spite of itself. It’s the expression of an aesthetic and ethos. Young musicians operate in the age of the network, with its liquid ability to spread information. This creates a challenge for artists. How do you not get run down the drain and mixed into the great grey soup of it all? How do you define and defend identity and individualism in the guts of a system that can digest seemingly everything into a smooth tan turd? That is the challenge which presents itself to a band like Whatever Brains.
Musically, this Raleigh, North Carolina band has earned a reputation for delivering spazzy, schizophrenic rock that feels informed by a range of crucial punk/post-punk from Dead Kennedys to Swell Maps while also being influenced by less vintage ‘00s acts like Jaguar Love and the Blood Brothers. Their newest collection — their third album, all of them self-titled — doesn’t abandon that world but does take it in what feels like a gloomier direction. Songs like “NPTO” bring to mind old Tubeway Army. There is a lot more broody songs and passages than there were in the blitzy stew of their 2011 album, and at its best this mixture brings to mind some of the tension and energy Pere Ubu created by mixing gothy minimalism, tight punk and lots of weirdo. They pull it off pretty well, for the most part. When they don’t, though, it can feel like a kind of mixtape of the great bands these guys like, a mash-up of ingredients rather than a meal.
This somewhat disjointed concoction may well be part of the band’s design, though. It’s not that hard for the ear to trace a path to Mr. Bungle and especially Mike Patton, as he, too, is a lover of colliding styles and references. The vocals seem to take cues from Patton’s theatrical snot, which can be a very annoying way to sing but, in general, isn’t overbearing here. Mashing up styles can create some unique music, but it can also be a miserable failure — Mr. Bungle’s fusion-y approach suffers a fatal distance from the styles it is appropriating, imitating and mashing up. The layer of academic remove when material is treated as “source material” can easily undermine the purpose of the music, which must be to rock out.
So Whatever Brains balance on a fence with this album. On one side is an experimental curiosity with style and genre that can feel more like curation then creation. On the other side, as reflected by their band name, is the impetus to turn off the brain and just get into the music. Sparse passages, like in “Yellow Death 2000” and richer songs like the poppy “Summer Home,” share a propulsive energy. This becomes the thread that holds the music together, but it’s fragile at times: “The Senator” is a fitting piece of the Whatever Brains puzzle but doesn’t dig deep enough to overcome its overt ‘00s Liars feel.
The sense that a lot for the music on this record telegraphs clear references to other artists actually isn’t a crushing problem. A band emerging out of the music/media-saturated environment today can easily become focused on the doomy sense that everything has already been done and get lost in a hunt for novelty. That hunt can easily overtake the simple impetus to play some sweet-ass music. It can leave listeners and bands untying endless knots of who-influenced-who. Whatever Brains as a band name hopefully serves to remind listeners, and, more importantly, the band to think less and do more.