John Davis & the Cicadas’ latest release, El Pulpo, shouldn’t be as good as it is. On paper, the concept sounds terrible: a collection of avant-garde new-wave tunes about the trespasses of Wall Street and big agribusinesses like Monsanto.
“White collar crimes,” Davis describes them. “There’s a lot of discourse on crime,” he continues, but “there’s more focus on blue collar crime.”
With this in mind, Davis wanted to make not so much a protest record about the myriad social issues exacerbated under the Trump administration but, instead, an album of what the musician calls satirical “edutainment,” borrowing a term from the rapper KRS One.
As one half of Folk Implosion alongside Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr., Davis earned a Top 40 hit back in the ’90s with the song “Natural One” off the Kids film soundtrack.
“When the band broke up there were bad feelings,” Davis admits, so after Folk Implosion, Davis gave up music to focus on a career as a public school teacher and union activist in North Carolina.
In his new line of work, Davis says, he’s worked with many people “negatively impacted by U.S. imperialism.”
Inspired by this as well as the financial crash of 2008, Davis wanted to address social issues in his music but wasn’t interested in moralizing. That’s part of what makes El Pulpo an unlikely success.
Now, Davis says, he doesn’t have to worry about making a living with his art. At this point he’s “interested in being as creative as possible,” he says; working on El Pulpo allowed him to do “something stranger.”
It’s almost a new genre, just crazy enough to work, like the soundtrack to a Broadway show sponsored by the popular leftist radio program Democracy Now: Davis’ reluctant tenor over the kind of 1980s-era synthesizer music that felt ultra-modern in that time, but now feels charmingly dated. Think Scary Monsters-era Bowie, Kate Bush or David Sylvian of Japan.
On the weird side, there’s “Who Milks the Cow?” in which Davis repeats a litany of villains like Papa John’s, Heinz and Unilever. “Mega farms and high-tech yields,” Davis sing-speaks like he’s in the kind of Greenwich Village art gallery that probably doesn’t exist anymore.
On the more accessible side there’s “Contamination in the Grass” and “Stock Up All the Prisons,” both of which would fit nicely on an early Talking Heads record. From Prisons, Davis sings: “Stock up all the prisons / close the public schools … take all the drugs you like.” ■
John Davis & The Cicadas (featuring Peter Hughes of The Mountain Goats) plays 7 pm Saturday, March 31, at Oregon Wine Lab, FREE. 21-plus.