Album Review: SLW + BBJR — ‘Bubblegum Necropolis EP’

Sam Locke Ward: ‘Happy Hearts’ Release Party

Gabe’s, Iowa City -- Friday, Feb. 17, 9 p.m., $10

Iowa is beautiful: a land of verdant cornfields, ball diamonds, quaint small towns and Shire-like rolling hills. But the realities of life are grim: the mask of “Iowa nice” all too often hides a deep core of red-state intolerance. Those acres of corn are nurtured by chemicals that seep into the rapidly eroding soil, owned by faceless agricultural conglomerates; desperation, addiction and hopelessness are endemic in a poisoned, culturally barren landscape.

From this land of contradictions springs the Bubblegum Necropolis EP, the newest collaboration between Sam Locke Ward and Bob Bucko Jr. It’s a rapid shift from the long-form sorrow of Discount Sacrifice at the Altar of Bargains, their 2021 full-length — not least for its format, a collection of 40 songs packed into the wildest, most chaotic nine minutes that any musician has put to tape in the last year.

SLW and BBJR experimented with drastic minimalism in 2021 on their two collaborations with Mike Watt (Real Manic Time and Let’s Build a Logjam). “I actually started the experiment on [Logjam] and just kept going,” says Ward. The approach ties in with the suitably absurd title: “It’s a field of songs that are all broken down to their essential components.” Broken down, as in crushed up like allergy meds and combined with caustic sonic backing to make a mixture as volatile as shake-and-bake meth cooked in an abandoned farmhouse.

The songs aren’t just blasts of noise; each tells a story or carries a message with the barest economy of words. Sometimes sung, often shouted, the tracks are layered with sheets of saxophone and guitar racket, evoking everything from lurching free-jazz, hardcore punk gang vocals, ‘60s spy-flick soundtracks and abstract Saturday morning cartoons scored by King Crimson, plus a little Irish reel toward the end.

“I told Bob I was ‘gonna play hard pitch,’” Ward explained. “It’s fun to throw hard stuff at Bob because he’ll do it.”

Bubblegum Necropolis is a deeply Iowan album, from “Church Going Choir Girl” to “Sports Bar” to “Rail Road Town” to the most Iowa track of all, “Pig Shit Delight”: “It’s a pig shit swim in a pig shit lagoon / an Iowa treat from me to you!” What better way to make sense of a place where highly explosive pockets of unstable, near-molten pig feces are commonplace?

Elsewhere, Ward (the comic artist behind Little Village’s Futile Wrath) and Bucko take on alienation, corporate culture, boredom, despair and nonsense situations. All this may sound rightly unpleasant, but here’s the thing — it’s hilarious. They process their angst with a warped sense of humor, crooning such chestnuts as, “Listen to your heart and follow your dreams / listen to your heart beat true.”

Bubblegum Necropolis is the finest release of 2022, a catchy, clamorous summation of what it’s like to live in these absurd times. On first listen, I laughed so hard I had to constantly stop and repeat songs. Buying the digital version of the album may be preferable — the songs fly by so quickly that repetition of tracks becomes necessary. But if you buy the tape, you can stand on the lawn outside Kim Reynolds’ office with a boombox and play it for her, an experience worth the cost of bail.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s February 2023 issues.