Tag Archives: The Bran Flakes

The Bran Flakes – Help Me (2017)

A-148290-1358797833-2984.jpegThe 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.

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The Bran Flakes – Bounces! (2002)

bran2The Bran Flakes belong to a genre called “plunderphonics”, which is pretty much what it sounds like – music based off some really, really obscure sample sources. Yes, the Bran Flakes are mash-up artists, but their source material is rather odd – religious albums, commercials, old Scholastic tapes, anything educational, and the occasional pop hit, but for the most part, there is very little here post-70’s, and much of it sounds even older than that. Sometimes the beats sound a little modern but chances are most of ’em are sampled from old funk records. The overall aesthetic of the Bran Flakes can be a little hard to figure out, but in general I think they just intend to be a good time and little more. They toe the line between amusing and creepy, as suggested by the asymmetrical smiley figures that adorn most of their albums. This stuff is funny, but it’s not punchline-driven; instead, they revel in absurdity. Absurdity like “The Hello Show”, which dizzyingly cobbles together as many samples of people saying “hello” as possible (including Jerry Seinfeld, James Brown, and Mario 64). A similar trick is used on the closing track on this album (“Bottom”) – an MC says “Thank you for helping to make all these songs hits for us…on behalf of all of our musical family”, which is proceeded with two minutes of various musicians, celebrities, and organizations introducing themselves in rapid-fire succession.  One can only imagine how long it took to put all this together.

The Brans had a few albums before this, but Bounces! is the first that feels like a great one from top to bottom. Their early releases were low-budget – I Remember When I Break Down was released on homemade cassette and CD-R (and later, just for free on the internet), and it was done before both members of the Flakes had even joined up; essentially it is an Otis Fodder solo album with guests. The next two, Hey, Won’t Somebody Come and Play? and I Don’t Have a Friend were both fine albums, but they suffered from being a bit too long and dreary, in addition to being poorly produced; samples were compressed, and often you could hear prominent vinyl crackle or tape noise. Bounces!, on the other hand, is lively and crisp – it’s still long (72 minutes), but the album sounds better, and the samples are catchier. More importantly, it really swings; maybe there is a dearth of darker moments (“Welcome to the Human Race” from the first album still really scares the hell out of me), but there is such incredible fun to be had on this one; there’s big brass, polkas, marching tunes, and even bits of disco.

Even if the music is cheery, there’s something unsettling about the Bran Flakes. One thing you may notice is that there’s so much fakeness or false sincerity in the sounds that they choose; a lot of this was originally recorded to preach, to sell, or to educate. In other words nearly all of it was driving at something – you can imagine a lot of the original pieces were commissioned. So while the music can be very upbeat, it’s a forced kind of upbeat, and there’s a dark consumerist subtext to a lot of this. Which is fine; that’s the world the Bran Flakes live in. But it’s a very boxed-off world – there’s not much room for interpretation here, as the moods are so cut-and-dry.

Still, the album works hard to sustain a lively, goofball atmosphere. For something that goes well over an hour, there’s quite a lot of focus here. Looking through the tracklist there really aren’t many dead spots – certainly some tracks are less memorable than others but the good stuff is spread out fairly well. That said, the first 18 minutes of this is some of the hookiest and most entertaining music I’ve ever heard, even including five minutes of “Ding Dong Dub”, which sounds like bran1The Orb remixing a nursery rhyme, and knowing them it’s exactly the kind of thing they would try if they thought no one was listening. I mean, these tracks just beg to be put on repeat – “Cool Fresh Apple Cider”, with it’s treasure trove of hooks, “Kayla”, which is 91 seconds of child-and-kazoo-driven madness, “Autumn”, with a flurry of marching horns and drums, and of course “Good Times a Goo Goo”, which combines a Fozzie and Kermit song from one of the Muppet movies with “Funky Drummer”. There are parts later on that are as good as any of this (“Super Dance Party”, which should crack a few smiles, “Perversion for Profit”, which ought’a inspire a couple frowns), but that stretch is really something special.

Anyway, there are way too many tracks to mention here; one goes “I can keep my panties dry, doot doot doodly doo”, and what can you say about that? There are times when the Brans do go into headier waters, but they deflate themselves time and time again (the darkest song is “Mr. Snuggles”, actually a bona fide original, with eerie, off-key background effects – but it’s also a song about “Mr. Snuggles”). Even the moment where things start to get a little emotional (“In the Final Hours There Was a Frying Pan”) is immediately followed with a fun, celebratory big band section. Once you get into the second half you get to hear the group taking care of business – there’s more straightfaced, groove-oriented stuff like “Apples” and cut-n-paste DJ trickery like “Trashcan Fun” – at times this feels like Hello Nasty-era Beastie Boys without the rapping. Certainly there are bits that don’t work but for an album of this length it’s surprisingly brisk; if you don’t like one idea there is going to be another one right around the corner.

Ultimately, that’s why Bounces! (and the Bran Flakes in general) works for me where other mash-up artists really don’t – these guys have the skill, and unlike say Negativland, they don’t wallow in lengthy conversation pieces or attempt to “really make you think”. In fact my very first impression upon hearing the Brans was, “I wish this was what Negativland sounded like!” They’re like two seasoned DJs whose houses burned down, forcing them to play the night’s set exclusively with vinyl they found at the thrift store. Case in point, the title track here, which combines workout tapes with “Another One Bites the Dust” and if nothing else that famous bass line is now permanently associated with “bounce two/stretch two/bounce two/stretch two” in my head. Ladies and gentlemen, the Bran Flakes!