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Thinking Fellers Union Local 282:
Blue-Colar Smart-Asses

["Thinking Before each tour, the five bandmates in the Iowa-born, San Francisco-bred Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 get together and choose songs they'd like to cover in concert. With each member allotted one pick, the songlist they assemble tells loads about the band's collective musical mindset.

Last time around, drummer/keyboardist Jay Paget chose the Butthole Surfers' "Graveyard." Guitarist/mandolinist/violist/tape operator Brian Hageman selected "Velvet Muscles" by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. Bassist Anne Eickelberg picked a Steve Miller tune. Guitarist/banjoist/organist/French hornist Mark Davies offered a medley from the soundtrack to Rosemary's Baby. And lastly, guitarist/pianist Hugh Swarts abstained; he's having enough trouble figuring out the band's complex originals.

To say the least, this is a joyously eclectic and unflinchingly eccentric outfit. But what else would you expect from a band called Thinking Fellers Union Local 282? Despite the band's insistence that their name has no relevance to their music, the unusual moniker is somehow appropriate. TFUL282 take a rootsy, blue-collar approach to intellectual, artsy music. They'll play, for instance, a banjo on one song and use Indonesian scales on the next.

On six albums and three EPs over eight years, bizarre has been the rule for TFUL282. They employ odd guitar tunings (try AACF#B or EEEEE), use exotic instruments like the erhu and the optigan, and often cram song bits written by various members into the same composition (and it shows). They conjure shades of Captain Beefheart, the Residents, and Sonic Youth without sounding much like any of them.

Perhaps the primary contributor to TFUL282's idiosyncrasy is the band's approach to composing. They tape hundreds of hours from their free-form rehearsals, then they whittle down the best moments into songs. Often, when members can't recall what they played in rehearsal or can't re-create the feel, the band will simply stick pieces of their rehearsal tapes onto albums. What results on disc is a collage of studio playing, found sounds, and spontaneous low-fi improvisation.

But while taped bits and abstract segments pop up throughout TFUL282's latest release, I Hope It Lands (Communion), the album's relatively conventional instrumentation, vocal clarity (everyone in the band sings their cracked poetry), and 24-track mixing make it possibly their most accessible recording yet. Clearly, though, I Hope It Lands is far from a bid at mainstream acceptance. For every cohesive and melodic song like "Empty Cup" or "Lizard's Dream," there are discordant and angular instrumentals like "Inspector Fat Ass" and the 17-second "Jagged Ambush Bug."

"It's still a really weird batch of stuff," Eickelberg says. "Within the weird batch there might be some stuff that sounds a bit poppier, but taken as a whole, it still looks like commercial suicide to me -- which is fine."

For the current tour, TFUL282 hope to play some of those rehearsal jams that appeared on disc but were never played live -- that is, if they can figure them out. "We're not trying to be exact," Eickelberg says. "We're always into the idea of re-interpreting -- of covering ourselves."

If, in fact, you do happen to catch TFUL282 in concert, be prepared for them to sound radically different from what you hear on their albums. There are bizarre covers, new versions of old material, and even some ad-hoc jamming. But no matter how disorienting the band can be, stay until the end of the set. Claims Eickelberg, "The longer we play, the more everything seems to make sense to everybody."

-- Roni Sarig

(Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 play T.T. the Bear's Place on Thursday, May 2.)

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