Weird at My School: Renaldo & The Loaf

Often, when writer’s block stymies me, I seek assistance from Random Word Generator. I’ll treat whatever it coughs up like an item in a vocabulary quiz, and force myself to incorporate it into the prose I’m (not) writing, and then next thing I know ideas are flowing again.

I’ve learned quickly, though, that this practice is most effective when I use the advanced Random Word Generator (Plus). This version not only doles out pretty much every part of speech, it also allows the user to set a level of complexity, from “very common” to “obscure.” Admittedly, a brain teaser like “quinquennial” probably won’t make it into my finished document -- unless my subject is something that only occurs every five years -- but trying to shoehorn it in to a draft engages my thought processes on a more complex level.

I mention this because I have a lot of trouble distinguishing between bands with names composed of common or very common elements, as opposed to those who favor the more esoteric corners of the lexicon. Black Eyes, Black Flag, Black Kids, Black Keys, Black Lips... they all start to run together in my brain after a while. I’ve been devouring pop music my whole life, and there are a lot of band names kicking around my addled noggin. Give me a little help with the sorting process, people!

I’m not sure how the Random Word Generator classifies the word “loaf.” But on those rare instances when it pops up a record jacket or on a poster, I take notice. I’m not saying Meat Loaf or Archers of Loaf are inherently better musicians because of their monikers, but my mental filters respond to them much faster than one more group with Wolf or White or Snake or Skull in its handle.

All of which is a longwinded explanation for why I’ve been curious for ages about Renaldo & the Loaf. How can you forget a name like that? I can’t. I’ve been stumbling across it from time to time since the mid-’80s, usually in relation to The Residents and Tuxudemoon and other outrĂ© bands who, like Renaldo & the Loaf, recorded for San Francisco’s Ralph Records imprint. But I’d never, ever heard their music. So finally, based on exactly those two bits of data -- a record label with a strong track record, and that unshakeable name -- I splurged and picked up a second-hand copy of R&TL’s 1981 debut Songs For Swinging Larvae.

I suspect the angels that turn the wheels of the universe didn’t want me to actually listen to R&TL until I’d reached a certain age. I certainly wasn’t ready for it in the ’80s. No wonder the Residents endorsed these cats: Their music is that far out. And yet, also strangely familiar. Half the songs on Larvae clock in at or under two-and-a-half minutes, like great pop ditties should. But the timbres? Well, according to the credits, the instruments used to make this album include -- but are not limited to -- mandolin, bouzouki, glockenspiel, clarinet, prepared guitar, and hacksaw blade. There are loops and lots of tape manipulation, especially on the vocals. (The jacket also notes that no synthesizers were used, but that’s the only obvious stylistic trait R&TL share with Queen.)

What does it sound like? Um... hold on... Venomous? No. Diligent? Let’s try again. Suffocating? Definitely not. Apparently the Random Word Generator is stumped, too. Okay, here goes: Songs for Swinging Larvae sounds like how I imagine insects, little green men from outer space, or any other species that “listens” through its antennae or kneecaps, instead of good old fashioned ears, might hear mainstream pop music. There are fleeting hints of old-time jazz and country & western, and distinct melodies and rhythmic hooks, yet the aesthetic they’ve been channeled through is very uncommon. No, make that obscure.

I’ll tell you this much, though. Once you’ve heard Renaldo & The Loaf, you won’t forget them. And you sure as hell won’t ever confuse them with anyone else.

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.

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