U.S. Maple – Acre Thrills

U.S. Maple
Acre Thrills

I’ll always remember the shock I felt the first time I heard Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. As I was trying to assemble the ultimate rock library, this was one of the bona fide five-star omissions my collection lacked, and I was quite eager to add it to my musical vocabulary. But it wasn’t that easy. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Horns blasted off course, guitars hit random notes, drums danced around the arrangements as if they were searching for another song to join, and Don Van Vliet’s lyrics were schizophrenic nursery rhymes whispered by mental patients into the wall. And when I finally had to admit to myself that I didn’t like Trout Mask Replica, I felt bad. As if I was too stupid to get what everyone knew was one of the great albums in rock’s history. Listening to U.S. Maple, I get that feeling again.

While U.S. Maple seems to have espoused as much bafflement as praise in their short four-album career, few people are merely indifferent to their unconventional sounds. And that’s altogether understandable, as the music listener who can sit through 30 minutes of generally free-form arrangements of two chirping guitars, rolling drums, and lead vocalist Al Johnson’s unintelligible whispers and growls has probably made a friend for life. For everyone else, however, Acre Thrills will probably sound exactly like what its makers intended it to be: an outright attack on rock and roll. By deconstructing and rebuilding, albeit with rather elastic blueprints, the previous rock formulas, U.S. Maple stomp willingly into a no man’s land of abrasive, unwieldy rock experimentation. God bless them for doing it, but music ultimately has to be more than boundary breaking. At some point, that magical intersection of rhythm, melody, and lyric have to merge and present something that is preferable to silence.

That being said, U.S. Maple makes it hard to connect with their music. Johnson’s lyrics, often a puzzling array of non-sequiturs and bizarre metaphor mixed with a healthy does of “yeahs,” are delivered in a hoarse and undecipherable rasp. A common example, “Obey Your Concert” features lines like “And now your house / it’s got wasps… / you go to Jim / attack him, like he’s some sort of killer fudge…” have potential for outright hilarity, but only the very perceptive listener is going to catch all the words without the lyrics in hand. At first listen, a number of these songs struggle to distinguish themselves, partly due to the fact that no guitar effects are used in the making of a very singular and homogenous textural package. As the time signatures rise and fall, start and stop, seemingly struggling through an eternally improvised intro, it’s hard to put your mental fingerprint on one song that you’ll give higher precedence over the others. Ultimately the unconventionality is tolerable, occasionally exciting, but only tenuously endearing.

While obviously not Top 40 material, there are still a few tracks here that have potential to take up residence on the periphery of your mind. “Make Your Bedroom Great” wraps itself around a fairly standard drum pattern, with Johnson employing an almost Bono-esque croon over a din of muted guitar lines. “Troop And Trouble” does seem a little random, but it has noticeably repeating musical themes, some even approaching a verse-chorus-verse structure. Still, U.S. Maple’s strength lies in their ability to recast rock in a newly fractured mold, and it’s a strength they are never at a loss to present in all its perplexing glory.

If I was a better rock critic, I could make up some heavy-handed metaphor for how U.S. Maple represents man’s primitive and contradictory nature, striving to rip down conventions and build something new for his own edification. But I don’t believe that, and I wouldn’t expect you to either. Distinctive, but not necessarily dynamic, Acre Thrills is a polarizing record that is neither shockingly brilliant nor unbearably mundane. There is little precedence for this kind of rock, and this lack of obvious influences ensures that when you make a visceral connection to the music, you can almost feel a party to the intuitive and undiluted creativity presented. In the end, though, U.S. Maple proves that slaying your rock parents may be necessary, and even gratifying, but ultimately puts you in risk of leaving you feeling somewhat illegitimate.