AS WE SAT DOWN to dinner this Thanksgiving, our hostess asked the guests to go around and acknowledge a few things they were thankful for this holiday season. It didn't have to be anything major—last year, my friend Nancy expressed gratitude that she could still fit into her leather pants—so when my turn came, I gave a shout out to my boyfriend, mentioned how happy I was to have found that used copy of Life After Breakfast (the 1981 album by S.F. synth-pop trio Los Microwaves) the other day, and then passed the talking stick down the line.
But you know what else I'm thankful for? Stuffing.
I never met a plate of stuffing I didn't like (although that year Mom put the giblets in it sure tested my mettle). I like it fancy, gussied up with sausage or oysters or chestnuts, but I am also perfectly content with the traditional croutons, celery, onions, and sage version. When I'm feeling blue, and macaroni and cheese just won't do the trick, I am not above mixing up a batch of Stove Top and eating the whole thing in front of the TV set.
In some strange quarters, folks call stuffing "dressing." That's screwed up. You don't have to have to be an etymologist to appreciate that stuffing goes inside something else, while dressing goes on the outside. Where I come from, dressing is what you put on a salad, i.e., a condiment specifically designed to make a forkful of otherwise boring iceberg lettuce and sliced cucumber worth the trouble it takes to lift a bite up to your lips.
Which brings us—in a very roundabout way— to Evil Heat, the new album (on Epic Records) from Primal Scream.
Let me preface this critique by stating that Primal Scream are one of my favorite bands—even though they skipped Seattle on their last U.S. tour. 1991's Screamadelica, with its seamless fusion of U.K. indie rock and post-Summer of Love dance beats, remains a masterpiece: the trippy house of "Don't Fight It, Feel It"; the hands-in-the-air anthem "Come Together"; and both parts of their drugged-out "dub symphony," "Higher Than the Sun."
While many critics snubbed that album's follow-up, 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up, for detouring too sharply into a classic rock vein, I enjoyed the bluesy, Stones-esque swagger of "Rocks" and the faux Sly Stone grooves of "Funky Jam." And once, while driving through Wyoming with 1997's Vanishing Point in the tape deck as a storm started rolling in, I got so freaked out by the combination of the menacing clouds, miles of eerily empty highway, and Bobby Gillespie's creepy vocals on "Kowalski" that I pulled off the road and checked into a Motel 6 to chill out.
Primal Scream have never been reluctant to enlist the services of others to enhance their music: DJ-producers Andrew Weatherall and Dr. Alex Paterson (a.k.a. The Orb), as well as former PiL bassist Jah Wobble, played pivotal roles in shaping Screamadelica. This trend reached a peak with 2000's Exterminator, which featured contributors including Dan the Automator, David Holmes, guitarist Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), and New Order's Bernard Sumner.
The artistic premise at work here is what made me think of stuffing. Start with an appetizing vessel, be it a turkey, or a song like the Primals' "Swastika Eyes." Then, augment this subject with something else scrumptious, like seasoned croutons, or beats by the Chemical Brothers. Voila! Something good just got better.
Evil Heat, which is the band's eighth full-length, features enough guest stars for a Love Boat/Fantasy Island double-header. Gillespie's old Jesus and Mary Chain bandmate Jim Reid pops up to sing the mind-numbingly repetitious "Detroit." Weatherall and Shields return, too. Even supermodel Kate Moss—who could certainly stand to choke down a few spoonfuls of stuffing, while we're on the subject —pops up, crooning the Nancy Sinatra part on an utterly pointless and surprisingly tame cover of Lee Hazlewood's unnerving "Some Velvet Morning."
And yet, despite all the assembled star power, Evil Heat is the weakest Primal Scream offering (Weatherall's faux Krautrock contribution "Autobahn 66" excepted) since the band's earliest, psychedelic indie rock incarnation. It's chock full of painful squalls of white noise, simplistic bass riffs that overstay their welcome, and programmed beats with no melodies on which to hang them. Which means that while Robert Plant's harmonica solo might make "The Lord Is My Shotgun" a curiosity to a few more fans, it doesn't improve an otherwise mediocre song.
This time around, Primal Scream's famous friends cannot disguise the fact that what lies beneath their contributions simply isn't that tasty. In short, they are functioning like dressing, not stuffing. And I assure you, there is big a difference.