Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps

  • Peter Stampfel and the Bottlecaps [Rounder, 1986] A-
  • The People's Republic of Rock n' Roll [Homestead, 1989] B+
  • The Jig Is Up [Blue Navigator, 2004] A-
  • Demo '84 [Don Giovanni, 2020] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Peter Stampfel and the Bottlecaps [Rounder, 1986]
At his best, Stampfel does a kind of slack-wire act, striking his own crazy folkie balance between soul and satire and his own crazy rock and roll balance between hell-bent enthusiasm and musicianly effect. H ere he plays it closer to solid ground, falling less often but relying a hair-and-a-half too much on satire and effect. Which doesn't hold down the mind-expanding covers, including a protectionist drinking song and an obscure Lloyd Price ditty featuring a spoken coda in which a smitten, pimply-sounding Stampfel explains the orbit of the moon to his date ("Hey, you wanna talk about something else?"). Nor harm his own "Surfer Angel," which crushes "Wipe Out" and "Endless Sleep" down into a surf death song, a subgenre I'm surprised no one got to in the '60s, or the actively uncompassionate "Lonely Junkie." Inspirational Verse: "My bowels are in stasis/My atrophied ass/Is heavy and leaded/And loaded with gas." A-

The People's Republic of Rock n' Roll [Homestead, 1989]
The title and no doubt the intermittently "commercial" sound are about band democracy, or maybe dictatorship of the proletariat--Stampfel gives up three lead vocals and five songs and gets the most uneven record of a career that's never confused consistency with virtue. The division is almost too neat--only one Stampfel loser, and also only one non-Stampfel winner, the John-Lee-Hooker ad absurdum "Mindless Boogie," which together with Stampfel's democratically romantic "Bridge and Tunnel Girls" may actually earn the college-novelty rotation he's always deserved. Which I hope doesn't prevent all concerned from learning their lesson. B+

The Jig Is Up [Blue Navigator, 2004]
Two wondrous songs: "You Stupid Jerk," as in "You are the kind of guy who hates support groups/But you're the kind of guy who needs support groups/That is so typical of those who need support groups/You clich-monger stupid jerk," and "Squid Jiggin' Ground," a Hank Snow oldie set against a countermelody of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" about the jolly time to be had stabbing squid to death and then they squirt you. Estimable also-rans include "the first song ever about a repo man" (it's traditional), the misanthropic "Song of Man" (it's not), an unsentimental adieu to William McKinley, and Stephen Foster's rarely heard "Old Dog Trey," to which Stampfel provides a follow-up. There are also some lousy songs by various of the artiste's wasted '60s posse, perhaps to demonstrate (or celebrate) the limits of what his notes dub "Psychedelic Drug Wisdom." Recorded 1989-1999, sung with Stampfel's signature lust for life, and released by conniving alt-folk mogul Michael Hurley, whom Stampfel bribes with a cover of "Werewolf." A-

Demo '84 [Don Giovanni, 2020]
Released vinyl-only in 1986 by the folkie standard bearers at Rounder and a quarter century later on a briefly available Rounder CD, Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps features four songs not on this abortive demo including the lost working-class speed threnody "Screaming Industrial Breakdown" and three Stampfel didn't write that are stuck on the back end for a reason. Although the personnel doesn't change much from record to record, you can understand why Rounder wanted torerecord--the production here booms and echoes in a most unfolklike manner, particularly on a nonconformist anthem called "Impossible Groove" that could have begun its life with a Chic tribute band. But before too long I realized I preferred it, mostly because Stampfel's voice, which in his forties remained a more puissant thing than the scrawny cartoon hillbilly of the '60s Holy Modal Rounders and as his seventies turned eighties finally began weakening scratchily, has welcome muscle in this iteration. If he recorded this session in hopes of "going commercial," as we used to say, his ambition had benefits, and the many ace songs are now otherwise available only at vintage vinyl prices. "Surfer Angel" may just be a joke whose time was overdue, but "Random Violence" is all too timely. And although Stampfel thought it fitting to rerecord "Lonely Junkie" after Steve Weber came back into his life, "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" has become a period piece all too soon. A

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