J.D. Pinkus has been all over the place in his musical career, from the Texas trippiness of the Butthole Surfers to the bottoms-up hard-rock band Honky that he formed in the mid-’90s to the double-bass extravaganza that was the Melvins’ 2018 album Pinkus Abortion Technician (a title riffed off of the Butthole Surfers’ 1987 self-recorded masterpiece Locust Abortion Technician).
Known to fans across the genre spectrum as a versatile and hard-working bassist, Pinkus has recently added the banjo to his musical arsenal. On his upcoming release and his second solo banjo album, Fungus Shui, Pinkus takes the banjo off the porch and in through the back door of that bar you’ve always been a little afraid of but are dying to get into, and proves that despite its innocuous reputation and popularity among many of the more benign and banal up and coming bands, the banjo can be killer when placed in the right sort of hands.
Fungus Shui kicks off with the multi-layered “Fungus Shui Trinity,” and this sets the tone for the deja-vu feeling of the album; it’s not that you’ve heard these songs before, but they remind you of how music used to make you feel. “Fungus Shui Trinity” feels like plugging Pink Floyd into the jukebox in a dry county pool hall, where you pay for games upstairs and grab a beer from the cooler downstairs, and there’s a solid mix of ripped jeans and work boots, punk t-shirts and cowboy hats, and the place is an oasis where differences don’t matter.
In that same vein, the songs on Fungus Shui steer clear of politics and moral judgments, focusing instead on the deeper things in life: Wearing down, working hard, and trying to decide whether to stick it out another day or cut and run for greener pastures. By turns raucous and plaintive, Fungus Shui is musically sparse, relying almost entirely on the twang of the banjo and Pinkus’ raspy dirt-road voice to carry the melodies, but there’s absolutely nothing lacking here. Pinkus weaves his vocals in with the music so perfectly that at times, it’s impossible to separate them and it’s as if a whole new instrument has been created in the mix.
One of the more poetic songs on the album, “Woke Up Dead” resonates into the bones of anyone who has ever been stuck between alive and dead thanks to depression, fear, or a trip that went a little bit off track. “Everybody feels like I do on the day after the last day of their lives” is a line that grabs you hard and, combined with the bouncing rhythm of the song, makes you wonder if it’s a bad thing, or just a fact of whatever passes for life these days.
“You Look Funny When You Cry” is a rockabilly stunner, bound to piss off a certain segment of the population and to bring a knowing smirk to others who appreciate a good tongue-in-cheek lament about the reality of being partnered up. Pinkus is clearly a guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously, and this song gives a peek into his sense of humor and clever wordsmithing while compelling even the most stoic listener to want to tap their toes.
The bare-bones rocker “Gettin It” is a working man’s anthem with an upbeat tone that belies the weariness of the lyrics. “Tomorrow’s gonna be long; much longer than it needs to be,” sings Pinkus, and there’s hardly a soul on Earth who hasn’t known that to be true.
Fungus Shui ends with an unexpected punch to the gut with “Slow Crawl.” The ballad carries an almost painful depth of emotion that puts it on par with The Yawpers’ alt-country tear-jerker “Carry Me,” with carefully ambiguous lyrics that somehow don’t need to be explained. It’s the perfect end to an album with eight near-perfect tunes, and while it’s a departure from what many Pinkus fans know and love, it’s a must-have for anyone who can appreciate true musical mastery and lyrical wit.