Graded on a Curve: Stump, A Fierce Pancake

There are great bands and there are truly peculiar bands, and sometimes the twain does meet. One example is Stump, whose 1988 LP A Fierce Pancake combined an extremely oddball sensibility with well-conceived, surprisingly enduring music.

When A Fierce Pancake first appeared stateside, it served as many listeners’ introduction to a band that to put it mildly presented a real head-scratcher. The music’s bent was deeply non-conformist yet not substantially indebted to punk precedent. It was surely bizarre, but was also highly structured. And it was exceptionally smart, but the band felt more like cagey, occasionally inscrutable pranksters than savvy and sober intellectuals. Just where did this record come from? Yes, it seemed they’d chosen their name quite well.

Stump did hail from Great Britain; that much was obvious. And the band was included on the now legendary C86 sampler released by the New Musical Express, but they frankly stick out like a throbbing digit amongst that release’s rough template of indie jangle and noise pop. No, Stump was so unlike their contemporaries that the most frequent comparison they received was through the dubious adjective Beefheartian. Those unfamiliar with this nomenclature should understand that it concerns the pseudonym of the late great Don Van Vliet, and that it’s usually shorthand for “this is so freaking weird and unlike anything else I’ve heard that I’m forced to make a broad and ill-suited comparison.”

For A Fierce Pancake sounds very little like Captain Beefheart. I mean, it’s weird, but it’s not that weird. And Don’s blues-based zonked hippie aesthetic is fundamentally different from Stump’s subversion of pop song structure. They do both feature an unrestrained angularity at times, but it’s used to different ends. The desperate stab at signifying that I’ve been partial to over the years to describe A Fierce Pancake is Residential, for it certainly holds touches that remind me of something Ralph Records might’ve concocted for potential pop-chart consumption during the same decade. Perhaps this hypothetical is just as inappropriate as dragging Beefheart into the discussion, but at least it’s a little more in line with what Stump actually achieves on record. Lastly, I’ll mention that some folks say Stump sound like Primus, but my only retort is that they have it exactly backwards, for Primus do indeed sound at times like Stump.

Unlike many bands flaunting their level of strangeness, they did get an unusual amount of attention (albeit brief), becoming fleeting MTV darlings, which is where my young ears and eyes first crossed their path. The videos for both “Buffalo” and “Charlton Heston,” while never in heavy rotation, did receive enough airplay to inspire a small scramble for copies of A Fierce Pancake. But this interest was apparently not enough for their stateside label Chrysalis, and the band dissolved before most non-Brits had time to properly acclimate themselves to what they were up to.

And what they were up to didn’t have a lot in common with current trends, at least in the United States. Stump’s music as presented on A Fierce Pancake was unashamedly large (some would even say slick) in its production design, which is a huge part of its appeal. Bassist Kev Hopper has stated how they were disinterested in limiting themselves to an “art-band” audience, and it’s in this lack of meager ambition that the songs gather their initial dissonance; they sound radio ready for an infinitely more twisted universe. Couple this with Stump’s avoidance of loud, distorted guitar and any sense of punkish anger or gloomy angst and it becomes obvious why they didn’t catch on with the surly denizens of the period’s rock underground.

But they didn’t really fit in to the mainstream of the college-rock experience either, though I’m sure A Fierce Pancake received its share of university play, particularly late at night. They could possibly be lumped in with some of the more unusual successes in the college-rock landscape like Camper Van Beethoven and They Might Be Giants, but in reality Stump was considerably more abstract in conception. The lyrical approaches of Camper and TMBG were both relatively easy to suss out, to the point where detractors would sometimes belittle them as “ironic” or as joke-bands. Stump had an obvious sense of humor, but it was also rather enigmatic, less jokey and more in the realm of surreal satire, possessing a biting wit that made the Flann O’Brien crib of their album’s title much more than just a casual appellation.

And Mick Lynch’s delivery of said lyrics considerably increased the level of Stump’s tweaked individuality. The non-trad nature of the band’s musical trajectory was often inhospitable to a standard verse/chorus approach. Instead of the role of singer/frontman, Lynch picked his spots as a sort of ringleader/master of ceremonies, repeating barbs of sly stream of consciousness and occasional social commentary that weaved into the record’s overall fabric with aplomb. Those predisposed to the cut of Lynch’s jib likely viewed him as a snide jester presiding over a circus of tipsy, bass-heavy art-spazz. Folks turned off by him probably saw the forced antics of a gadfly. I won’t go so far as to say there was no middle ground, but the land-plot of ambivalence regarding Stump was easily too tiny to host a modest summer garden.

And the music of Kev Hopper, drummer Rob McKahey and guitarist Chris Salmon could feel at times like riding a see-saw on the deck of boat navigating choppy waters with a drunkard at the helm. What’s impressive about their strategy is the discipline required to pull it off; nothing is indiscriminate in the scheme of things, and while infrequently catchy the preciseness of Stump’s attack quickly lent itself to familiarity. The strictness of their avant-garde method can therefore be identified as a significant precursor to post-rock. From the fluttering bass, stuttering drums, and wiggling guitar of opener “Living it Down” the music wobbled, swayed, bounced and stretched itself into a pop music funhouse fantasia.

“Buffalo” was Stump’s breakout and eventual signature song, appearing first via C86 and subsequently finding inclusion on not only the US edition of A Fierce Pancake but also their self-released ’87 mini-LP Quirk Out, the band’s Peel Sessions EP and its own 12-inch single. This makes sense, for it’s as prickly and infectious a piece of avant-pop as I’ve heard; the music teetered with methodical inebriation and Lynch’s vocals alternated between a swaggering sing-along, stuttering alliteration and a shouted, near-demented chant.

But if “Buffalo” is Stump’s signature tune, “Charlton Heston” is A Fierce Pancake’s obvious single. A poke in the ribs of religious mythology and iconography, it finds them at their most traditional. But with a constant rhythm-loop of croaking frogs and the song’s faux C&W angle, it resides far away from the land of the “normal.” It does stick out a bit on the record but not in a negative way; if Stump was briefly on the map in the States, they were much closer to a commercially viable big deal in Great Britain (lots of music weekly hubbub, natch), so it makes sense they would conspire to conjure up something with possible hit appeal. “Charlton Heston” did make it to #77 on the UK charts, but that clearly fell short of their Euro label Ensign’s lofty expectations.

Stump ceased operations not long after A Fierce Pancake’s considerable aspirations underachieved in the marketplace, but their rep evolved into that of a well-respected cult band (yes Martha, another one). Back in 2008 the Sanctuary label compiled all their extant recordings into the three-disc Complete Anthology. It technically isn’t complete, lacking the Peel Sessions, but who am I to quibble over semantics. For those bowled over by Pancake it is the best one-stop shop for getting acquainted with the rest of their high-quality stuff, which was never easy to find, at least in my neck of the woods.

And for curious newbies, used copies of Pancake do turn up in the bins with frequency for less than a sawbuck. That’s a small price to pay for music possessing such a warmly peculiar vision.

Graded on a Curve: A-

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