Think of those calliope sounds that wafted just over the horizon when you were a kid, and how your heart skipped a beat when you realized a carnival was coming to town. Now remember the first time you saw The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and how it made you just know that the next carnival that stopped in your little town was going to be that magical, that ominous. Now imagine Tim Burton and David Lynch pooling their resources for the purpose of making that carnival actually happen. Swirl all that around in your head for a moment or two, let your mind evolve a soundtrack that's part Raymond Scott, part Merrie Melodies, part Oingo Boingo and part Kurt Weill. Let all of it sink in, congeal, and morph, and you have a rough understanding of Ego Plum and the Ebola Music Orchestra.
On their first full-fledged album, The Rat King, Ego Plum and the Ebola Music Orchestra not only recreate the sullen dangers of the carnival — they reinvent them. The resultant work is a twisting thrill ride through Jungian corridors that leave the listener a little woozy, but panting for another trip. The cartoonishly eerie "Introduction," replete with Salvation Army trombones, and marching bass drums, lures you in like a spider awaiting prey. Then, the carnie barker entices you to enter into the labyrynth with promises of sights never before seen, and "all questions answered inside the carnival show."
This is a carnival, though — and carnivals being what they are, success depends on sleight of hand and misdirection. Ego Plum is a master of both. He promises a journey into the darker realms of the psyche, and because the music teeters somewhere between cabaret and outright psychosis, we believe him. We want to believe him, so even when the illusion wears thin, as on "The Death of Cannibal Chimp" (a reworking of Poe themes), we can't wait for the next pause on the ride. Instrumental interludes of juxtaposed xylophones, mellotrons, trombones, and guitars lull us into a dreamy trance before we're jarred into the next Daliesque exhibit. Everybody has "Something To Hide," he assures us towards the beginning of the ride, and proceeds to gleefully expose those frailties as another part of the natural order of life. In Plum's world, irony, guilt and redemption are helpmates to one another, with none of them emerging as a victor. "Hansel and Gretel" finds Hansel riddled with angst over the traumatic aftermath of the fairy tale, practically sobbing to Gretel, "… on my knees, I promise that I'll never put you back in harm's way."
But like any good carnival ride worth the price of admission, The Rat King lets us know in the end that it's all been a bit of a lark, that it's all been an elaborate joke. When the master of ceremonies finally appears in "The Rat King," he's all drool and sarcasm as he taunts and toys with us one last time. "There's a time to harm 'em and a time to P.T. Barnum — exorcise all the shames and insecurities — in me."
And as the strains of "Ebola Music Orchestra Theme" usher us, a bit shaken but none the worse for wear, into the light of everyday reality, it dawns us that we've been taken. As rides go, it was good while we were traversing that tricked out artificial river. But once the ride came to its inevitable end, we realize we've been the rubes all along, and we actually paid to feed the Rat King's own neuroses.
The Rat King ultimately works best if not taken seriously. Unfortunately, it too often defends itself as being "art." It's not. But if taken straight up as a cartoon shot with a bitchin' soundtrack, it's one amusing ride. There are enough musical references to make the mind reel, and enough stop and go cartoon lurches to make you anticipate the next pratfall. It's the kind of shot that hits you in the gut and brain, and leaves you wondering what just happened?