Last year, when Primus played The Fox Theater in Oakland, California on New Year’s Eve, the trio spent the second set playing the soundtrack to the classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Now they’ve recreated that experience with their new album, Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble (CD, vinyl, digital), which is their first new recording with original drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander since they did new songs for 2003’s best-of collection Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People, and that line-up’s first full-length studio album since 1995’s Tales From The Punchbowl.
As you’d expect if you’ve ever listened to Primus, covering the soundtrack Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is largely a match made in chocolate Heaven (which is like regular Heaven, except made of chocolate). Which isn’t to say these guys didn’t try to make these songs even more Primus-y than they might’ve already been. While such songs as “Golden Ticket” sound Primus-y to begin with, the trio still put their unique stamp on quite a few of these tunes.
Consider “Hello Wonkites,” which kicks off Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble as an overture of sorts, and sounds like a classic Primus instrumental. This leads into a version of “Candy Man” that sounds nothing like the one in the film (or the Sammy Davis, Jr. version, either), and instead sounds like it should’ve been on Primus’ 1993 album Pork Soda. The same can also be said for the similarly Pork Soda-ish “Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride,” and the Sailing The Seas Of Cheese-sounding instrumental “Farewell Wonkites” that concludes the album, while “Pure Imagination” is rooted in the original but has flourishes of Primus-ness.
What’s interesting is that to make the songs on Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble sound Primus-y, the trio have actually added two more to their ranks: cellist Sam Bass, who previously played with Primus singer/bassist Les Claypool on his Purple Onion album, and Critters Buggin percussionist Mike Dillion, who was part of the New Year’s Eve show and previously played with Claypool on Purple Onion and Of Whales And Woe. And while their contributions are sometimes subtle, there are moments — such as on the songs “Cheer Up Charlie” and “I Want It Now” — where they really expand the sonic pallet…and for the better.
There is, however, one problem with Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble that probably couldn’t have been avoided. Because there are four songs in the movie from the Oompa Loompas, there are, of course, four Oompa Loompa songs on this album as well. But while they’re a little different lyrically, they’re musically the same, which makes it kind of redundant when you get to the third (“Oompa Veruca” and “Oompa TV”), especially since there’s only ever one song between them. As a result, the first half of Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble is decidedly more interesting than the second.
Granted, they could’ve combined them into one big super song, but that probably would’ve gotten drunk with power, broken free, and rampaged through the city, and no one wants that.
Primus have long been hit and miss with their covers. While their version of Peter Gabriel’s “Intruder” on 1992’s Miscellaneous Debris was great, their rendition of Metallica’s “The Thing That Should Not Be” on 1998’s Rhinoplasty sounded too much like the original (well, as much like the original as anything Primus plays can ever sound). Thankfully, most of Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble falls into the former camp, which is why this album is more than just a fun side trip and is instead the next great chapter in the career of a band who’ve never been afraid to try new things, and always do so with their unique identity intact.