Graded on a Curve:
John Frusciante,
Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt

John Frusciante is primarily known as a guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, filling that role from 1988-’92 and again from ’98-’07. Shortly after his first departure, a collection of the guy’s home recordings saw release on Rick Rubin’s Universal subsidiary American Recordings. Due to the RHCP association, Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt’s ragged, surreal atmosphere has likely confounded more listeners than it’s thrilled, as major label-funded records don’t get much stranger. In a sweet development, Superior Viaduct has given it its first ever vinyl issue in a gatefold jacket with printed inner sleeves; the bonus pre-order 7-inch is sold out, but the meat of the matter is available now.

During the post-grunge and Alternative/ Indie ’90s, the once cool, calm and collected major labels were scrambling amid uncertain waters, signing acts with reckless abandon and funding a bunch of sub-labels and side ventures along the way; the economy was booming, after all, and nobody wanted to miss out on a potential Next Big Thing.

These circumstances resulted in a few truly bizarre records receiving corporate funding. A pair of examples: in ’92, Reprise issued Pop Tatari by Japan’s Boredoms, which gave underground noise rock the Carl Stalling treatment, and two years later Geffen released Zero Tolerance for Silence, a solo noise excursion by noted and normally well-mannered jazz fusion guitarist Pat Metheny.

Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt also came out in 1994, and if it was better received than Metheny’s curious one-off stylistic left turn, the overall response, seeing that it was the debut solo album from the former guitarist of one of the most popular rock bands of the era, was still somewhat muted.

But on the other hand, this unambiguously druggy dive toward the fringe was an utterly different beast from the Chili Peppers’ funk-tinged Alt-arena rock, and to a partial extent can be accurately assessed as Frusciante’s reaction against it. Just drink up that cover photo of the artist in drag, taken from Toni Oswald’s film Desert in the Shape; it’s far from the sorta thing the jockish segment of the Peppers’ fanbase would’ve been eager to carry to the cash register.

Likewise, the potential receptive audience for the record was likely averse to buying unheard due to indifference of disdain for RHCP; I did hear Niandra LaDes shortly after it came out, and it registered as a turn for the twisted from a fella whose former band I’d long held at arm’s length. Other reactions witnessed ran the gamut from utter disdain to a smattering of positivity.

American Recordings abetted this situation by reportedly and (unsurprisingly) doing next to nothing to help guide Frusciante’s work into the appropriate compact disc players, so maybe the initial impact was just about right. Subsequently, its stature has grown, but intermittent out-of-print status has kept it from attaining full-blown cult stature. It has drawn comparisons to Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, and Captain Beefheart.

Those are big shoes to fill, but please keep in mind the drug-bent ambiance mentioned above. It’s also a record of two home-recorded sessions, Niandra LaDes essentially song-based and Usually Just a T-Shirt more abstractly experimental. “As Can Be” makes it immediately clear just how twisted the tune-oriented half of the program can be, in part through the acidic nature of the guitar but more so due to the unrestrained manner of Frusciante’s singing.

Even when delivering a reminder of his then-recent tenure in RHCP, as “My Smile is a Rifle” does early in the set, the sheer eccentric intensity of the vocals counteracts any accessible momentum. However, the numerous shifts in the relatively brief “Head (Beach Arab)” do underscore Niandra LaDes as more than a journey through the strung-out loner zone, a point driven home further by a bold remodeling of the Bad Brains’ “Big Takeover.”

“Curtains” brings a switch to piano and with it a turn toward glammy pomp, and the acoustic strum and tape-speed manipulations of “Running Away into You” conjure the psych aesthetic of the Butthole Surfers applied to the solo-and-at-home impulse. The “production” here is considerably more than simply pressing the play button, but it’s still a stripped-down affair, which works in its favor, especially during the focused folky tunefulness of the faced-paced “Mascara” and the slower emotive strum-beast “Been Insane.”

From there, the instrumental “Skin Blues” moves from the coffeehouse to the opium den in under two minutes, while “Your Pussy’s Glued to a Building on Fire” emphatically returns to bad trip psychedelia. “Blood on My Neck from Success” is rather plainly about his experiences with RHCP, and “Ten to Butter Blood Voodoo” wraps up the Niandra LaDes half of the disc by becoming increasingly warbling and warped.

The 13 untitled pieces constituting Usually Just a T-Shirt are surely more than formless fucking around, but originally, mainly through the shift from songs to something nearer to abstraction, they could be reminiscent of the addenda often featured on CD-era releases, even as guitar gems “Untitled #6” and “Untitled #7” sit in the middle.

Superior Viaduct’s reissue separates Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt’s halves by LP, so it’s much easier to give each the deserved attention. Is Frusciante’s first one as good as Oar, The Madcap Laughs, or Trout Mask Replica? Heck no, but it is a fascinating tour of a wild mind that holds up well to contemporary listening.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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