Jeffrey Lewis and Kimya Dawson can both boast back catalogs full of smart, funny, insightful, and touchingly direct punky folk tunes, but they've also each penned plenty of inane, inscrutable, and/or indulgently scrappy song-doodles that, at best, have served to flesh out each performer's personably idiosyncratic, warts-and-all appeal. The dividing line between these two types of songs is a subjective one, to be sure, but even devoted fans would probably agree that the bulk of The Bundles -- the first recorded output from a longstanding though intermittent collaboration between these two leading lights of anti-folk -- lands sadly but squarely in the latter category. From the shambling start of "A Common Chorus," with Dawson repeating "Don't forget about your friends" over crudely basic Casio and acoustic guitar bits, the album sets up an emphatically informal tone that ostensibly speaks to its low-key, friendly inclusiveness (to wit: minutes later, after a bunch of rambling overlapped vocals and a unison throwaway Hollies reference, the Dawson-led Olympia Free Choir pop up to sing the song's title en masse), but more often winds up feeling impenetrably haphazard, or merely lackadaisical and tossed-off. To its credit, The Bundles does play like a true collaboration, with the marquee twosome along with the band's other members (Lewis' bass-playing brother Jack and drummer Anders Griffin, and engineer/fifth Bundle Karl Blau) trading lines or simply singing simultaneously, and the fun they clearly had putting it together can't help but be a bit infectious. Lewis, in particular, spews prodigious strings of would-be witty absurdist wordplay, sung-spoken sham poetry, and non sequitur nonsense rhymes ("Shamrock Glamrock") that are chuckle-worthy when they're not utterly asinine. A few numbers are mildly musically compelling -- the gently melodic "In the Beginning," the Western-flavored travelog "Desert Bundles" -- and "Metal Mouth"'s bizarro ode to brace-face love is a decently inspired conceptual coup. But only one moment here resembles the big-hearted, unflinchingly personal straight talk of Lewis and Dawson's best work: midway through "Over the Moon" -- shortly after a bit of claptrap about "squirrel beards" -- Dawson issues a brief, singsongy defense of her anti-materialistic value system, culminating in a mantra that stands as the album's clear statement of purpose: "I just wanna sing with my friends." A laudable goal, sure, but hardly a surefire recipe for listenability. If the results are as witless as the hokey, painfully screeched parable "Ishalicious," these Bundles may be best left unwrapped.
The Bundles Review
by K. Ross Hoffman