The closest parallel to the music on Huffin' Rag among Stapleton's past work is 1985's The Sylvie and Babs Hi-Fi Companion, in which Stapleton along with a large ensemble of NWW satellites—David Tibet, Edward Ka-Spel, Jim Thirlwell, William Bennett, Diana Rogerson, among others—took great joy in deconstructing, reconstructing, destroying, mocking, celebrating and generally pulverizing a dizzying collage of easy listening favorites, all pervaded with an infectiously irreverant, anarchic attitude. Something similar is going on with Huffin' Rag, a large ensemble of collaborators—including Andrew Liles, Matt Waldron, R.K. Faulhaber, Colin Potter, Diana Rogerson (again), Peat Bog, and Aranos—and an agenda that includes off-kilter versions of lowbrow jazz, but something is missing. Actually, two somethings are missing: the experimental collagist feel and the sense of anarchic joy.
Part of the problem might be the proverbial "too many cooks spoil the broth" problem, but more than likely it has to do with the growing tendency for Nurse With Wound's recent output to sound less like the work of one author, and more like art-by-committee. I don't know enough about Steven Stapleton's working methods and artistic process to second guess the way in which this album was recorded, but compare it to something like Sylvie and Babs, or even Who Can I Turn to Stereo?, and it's hard not to notice a marked drop in quality. Where those earlier albums had a gloriously handcrafted feel, weird musique concrète rubbing shoulders with mangled samples and surrealistic moments of pure creep-out, Huffin' Rag can't shake its digital, clinical, overworked feel. A track such as "Groove Grease (Hot Catz)" is aiming for a dislocated, Yagga Blues-style take on bebop, but its collection of loops and prefab effects bring it much closer in effect to 1990s acid jazz and goofy swing/exotica revivalists like Tipsy or (gasp) Combustible Edison. Only isolated moments remind one of what the Nurse is usually capable, and they come few and far between.
Some of thee tracks go on for far too long. "Thrill of Romance...?" is a case in point, a real patience-tester at more than six minutes of tepid noodly jazz with the same throbbing synth element repeating through its entire length. While others may find it hypnotic, I found it annoying. The vocals provided by Lynn Jackson are capable, but unremarkable, and it makes me wonder about Stapleton and co.'s mysterious investment in such an undistinguished singer/songwriter that they used her songs and lyrics for three of the tracks on Huffin'. "Black Teeth" has Matt Waldron of irr.app.(ext.) doing some funny Tom Waits/Dr. John-style vocals, and he actually sounds pretty good, but the cutesy pastiche wears out its welcome way before it's over. Same with "Crusin' For a Bruisin'," which attempts to liven up a dull, repetitive loop with occasional traffic noises and radio chatter.
All is not lost. The album's longest track, "The Funktion of the Hairy Egg," remains dynamic and interesting for most of its 14-minute length, traveling from fragmentary jazz blurt, to drone-y krautrock repetition, to the sounds of several species of furry animals huddled together in a cave grooving with a pict, and finally to a weird country song lost in the midst of a Salt Marie Celeste-style cycle of jarring noises. "Juice Head Crazy Lady" sounds a bit like the Boredoms at their more exotic/electronic end, tracks like "Jungle Taitei" or the DJ Pica Pica Pica mix CD; amped-up exotica in a glittery acid wonderland. At its best, Huffin' Rag Blues hints at a much better album, the album that Stapleton, Liles and co. probably should have made instead of this one: a more lateral, abstract take on jazz and swing with less loop-based recording and more open-ended, improvisatory composition; more ragged, jagged juxtapositions, rather than the overly smooth, washed-out digital edits that make this album sound more pedestrian than it should.
Unfortunately, what we get here is overcooked in places, and undercooked in other places. Mostly, it just seems like Stapleton didn't really push the concept far enough, and didn't exercise enough control over the proceedings, so that the final product sounds like an artistic misfire at times, but mostly like a watered-down compromise. It doesn't share the same unglued, bizarre surrealism that has made Nurse With Wound one of the most consistently outré and entertaining sound artists of the post-industrial milieu for nearly 30 years. There's still more than enough moments of cleverness on display throughout Huffin' Rag to demonstrate that Stapleton and co. can easily get back on the horse and make something great again. Until then, curious listeners are advised to comb online auction sites for reasonably priced copies of Sylvie and Babs.