The Bran Flakes are back and they’re looking good. Leaner, more muscular, a bit less frumpy and scatterbrained. Hell, you almost didn’t recognize them at first. They’re even talking about the internet now, just like everyone else. Last time you saw them they were trying to fit in with the college crowd, but those giant paper mache heads seemed to creep everyone out. Still…whatever happened to those guys?
Help Me is the first Bran Flakes album in eight years, and only their second album proper since the last one I reviewed, which, holy hell, was released all the way back in 2001. At one point the Flakes were a full-time proposition, releasing long albums on a yearly basis, but they’ve dialed it back since then, perhaps realizing that sampling the stuff gathering dust in the back of the church storage room wasn’t a great way to make a living. So they poke their heads out once every presidential administration or so and release something that gets criminally ignored, even though their music is more fun than a monkey on a pogo stick and twice as noisy. As of this writing, the only thing a Google search for this album will bring up is “Will Bran Flakes help me poop”. Okay, their music does make me a bit nauseous sometimes, but it’s never yet landed me in the bathroom. Your mileage may vary.
So let me try to remedy that, because Help Me is quite excellent. I remember this came out the same week as Nmesh’s Pharma, leading me to think they were kind of like brother and sister albums; Pharma is the big brother who got into the liquor cabinet a little too early, Help Me the little sister who hangs out at the roller rink and idolizes Taylor Swift. The Flakes have always had that sort of little kid vibe, primarily because they sample so many records aimed squarely at children (who must be in their 60’s right about now). But Help Me adds a new wrinkle, hinted at on their last record; a willingness to bring in more modern dance records (by which I mean, 70’s and 80’s pop is no longer off limits), thereby beefing up their rhythms and crawling out from under that “outsider” label. I count two samples that also appeared on The Chemical Brothers’ DJ record, along with fairly recognizable snippets of “Holy Diver” and “Against All Odds”. The longest track here (“Clap Your Hands”) starts with an extended rap section. All this in addition to the usual plundering of old educational, religious, and self-help spoken word records, plus some old timey jazz and bluegrass for good measure.
In other words, this record is stuffed, though for once the Flakes decide to keep it short, running through the entire thing in less than 40 minutes. There’s not a whole lot of repetition, and even the longer tracks are broken up into sections rather than follow one idea to its conclusion. It almost feels like one of those early They Might be Giants albums, the way each track reveals its hook, cuts to a chorus (whatever that may be in the world of the Bran Flakes), throws in another hook and then just quits, all in about 90 seconds. So it winds up being one of those albums you want to restart just as soon as it’s over. I mean, there’s a lot here: a funky chicken, a remixed diaper commercial, a foul-mouthed Big Bird, and the world’s strangest tribute to Bill Gaether (whatd’ya mean, “who’s that?”). Yes, this record is quite odd, but as the first track says, “an open mind is an important asset, and an attitude that you need to develop”. So develop one. Because the enthusiasm of the Bran Flakes can wear on you if you’re in a foul mood; you’re barely three minutes into the thing when the yodeling starts. Even the hip-hop track (“Clap Your Hands”) careens quickly into bouncy house fun time farm music that’s much too fast to actually dance to. Sounds awesome, right?
And so, the album asks a fundamental question: can music just be off the wall fun all the time? If you ever listened to Fantasma by Cornelius and wondered why all the tracks can’t be like “Monkey” or “2010”, well, you’re in luck. It’s not all hyper-speed tempos and explosions, but even the melancholy stuff adds in a bit of cheekiness (“Comfort & Love”, which is the aforementioned diaper remix, or “On the Moon”, an epic with a bit of MST3K feel to it). Many of the best tracks are the ones that straddle that line – “Help Me”, “Caution”, “Have You Seen?”, “There’s a Lot of Things in Life Today”, “How to Take a Good Selfie”…all of these feel a bit profound, even as loaded with melody as they are. It’s tracks like that which make the album as replayable as it is, though to be fair the more overly gimmicky stuff is often just as good (“Bill”, “Electronic Voices”, “Nope”). As usual, it’s fun to pick apart how the various sampled voices interact with each other; seemingly random bits that you later realize are kind of having a conversation (“Of Course”). There’s only one real punchline (“The Letter A”) but this is still a perversely funny album, as Bran Flakes albums usually are. Anyway, enough with the song title-dropping, since this thing works better as a piece anyway, and I can’t imagine hearing any bit of it in isolation without wanting to hear the whole thing. It’s the first Bran Flakes album that doesn’t really have a single like “Good Times a Goo Goo” or “Stumble Out of Bed” to represent itself to the unflaked masses. So whatever, just take the plunge and grab yourself the most amusing album of 2017. Maybe you’ll dig it, maybe you won’t, but either way the Bran Flakes deserve whatever attention they can get. There have got to be plenty of people out there searching for music just like this.