The alt-rock revolution of the '90s opened the doors to the mainstream for a bunch of weirdos, chief among them Primus, the Bay Area-based trio led by bassist/singer/prankster Les Claypool. From the start, they were alternative primarily because they didn't quite fit any other category. Their roots were in the Bay Area metal scene, which kind of fit since they were indeed heavy even if they weren't quite metallic, plus they shared an instrumental virtuosity not uncommon to metal, even if in Primus' case it often sounded like an extrapolation of Frank Zappa -- and that was in large part due to Claypool's satiric lyrics, equally as cynical and vulgar as Zappa, but delivered without the same level of pretension (although he did often manage to nail part of Frank's condescension). But above all, Primus was jokey, their music exploding in garish colors as if it was a Tex Avery cartoon, which the gleefully grotesque clay and cartoon album covers resembled. They jammed, but their exaggerated rhythms, dissonant chords, and intricate riffs made it all sound like a soundtrack to absurd antics. Their songs were peppered with characters like Tommy the Cat, John the Fisherman, Jerry the Race Car Driver, Mr. Krinkle, and a murderer called Mud, all personified by Claypool in a voice that sounded like he held his nose while he sang. Not quite the raw ingredients for a huge band, but Primus came along at the right time, with their breakthrough second album, 1991's Sailing the Seas of Cheese, arriving not long after Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers made funk-metal popular, and not long before Nirvana made all underground rock commercially viable. Primus rode this wave all the way toward the top of the Billboard charts, as their third record, 1993's Pork Soda, debuted at number seven, leading toward a headlining slot on the third Lollapalooza that year. They weren't as huge as Nirvana or Pearl Jam, but there's little question that Primus was one of the big alt-rock bands in America during the peak of alt-rock, and they did it without a commercial crossover to their name.
But they did have a number of MTV and modern rock radio staples in the '90s, and they're all collected on 2006's They Can't All Be Zingers, the band's first compilation. Removed from their brief, inexplicable peak, these songs still sound strange, but not necessarily in the way they were intended -- and if ever there was a band that tried to sound strange, it was Primus. As this well-chosen comp illustrates through its selection of hits and album tracks, they were self-consciously funny-sounding without quite being funny, deliberately abrasive yet never quite rocking. They were certainly not grunge, nor were they really rooted in punk the way so many alternative rock bands were: they were an arty jam band, which is the reason why Claypool wound up forming collectives with other arty jammers such as Phish's Trey Anastasio and the Police's Stewart Copeland when Primus was on one of their many hiatuses. That artiness and virtuosity is abundant on They Can't All Be Zingers, which is really all the casual Primus fan or '90s nostalgist needs, since a little of this goes a long, long way for all but the faithful. In a way, the manic "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver," "Tommy the Cat," with its Tom Waits cameo, or the crude but funny "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" still retain their power: they still sound boldly colorful and willfully annoying, but even if you're ready to turn off any of the songs by the time they reach the second verse, it's still hard not to admire Primus for their sheer musicianship as well as how they stuck to their defiantly weird guns. As this comp proves, they didn't change much from their debut through to their 2003 EP Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, and even if that's not strictly your cup of tea, it's hard not to admire that -- and hard not to be a bit nostalgic for a time when a band like this could sneak onto the charts and become platinum-selling artists with music as odd as this.