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Folks tend to dislike U.S. Maple for the picayune reason that its music is a deliberate affront to the human nervous system. Singer Al Johnson sounds like Captain Beefheart with a bad case of laryngitis, and the rest of the band doesn’t make songs so much as tear them apart and put them together again all backassward. That said, the shocking thing about Purple on Time, the Chicago quartet’s fourth long-player, is that a couple of its tunes sound like, well, tunes. With its rocked-out drumbeat and slithering, slow-build
guitarsand despite Johnson’s mumbled plea to “Reach me/And eat me””My Lil’ Shocker” could almost be Sonic Youth at its radio-friendliest. “Whoopee Invader,” by contrast, is an arena-rocker in the Grand Funk traditiononly slowed to a crawl, stopped and started, and generally harassed to within an inch of its life. And though “Tan Loves Blue” features vocals so whisperingly hoarse you’ll want to shout, “Water, man! Drink a glass of goddamned water!” it’s also got a great big beat that you can dance to. But the album’s tuneful highlight is, believe it or not, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” I turned it on expecting nothing less than the greatest desecration since Killdozer’s take on “All Along the Watchtower.” But lo and behold, U.S. Maple’s version not only is faithful to the originalor at least as faithful as can be expected from this band of unfaithful servantsbut also actually swings, with drummer Adam Vida contributing some natty little rolls and guitarists Mark Shippy and Todd Rittmann tossing off tasty licks and big riffs like a couple of hot-shit Nashville session guys. Sure, Johnson occasionally sounds like a man drowning on his own
salivaguess he finally got that glass of waterbut when he’s not sucking in his own spittle, his vocals are a revelation, all sultry whispers and odd phrasing and a couple of long, drawn-out “oooooohs” that sound both passionate and sincere. I used to think of Johnson & Co. as an essential part of any pop-hating crank’s musical library. But Purple on Time demonstrates that they’re so much more: Any bunch of guys who can beat Dylan at his own game aren’t just perverse. They’re gifted. Michael Little