Is the key to this album in the monolithic sound of the bass and drums on the Bill Withers-penned opening track, “Lonely Town, Lonely Street,” recorded way up front in the mix and in lock step, just like you might find in a vintage hip-hop mix? Normally I would say yes, but in this case I can’t tell you. All I know is that it’s far, far removed from whatever you might try to call the rest of this surrealistic cruise through the music of another era. As the unapologetic title lets you know, It Is What It Is is an evocation of old school late 1970s/early 1980s pop and R&B. By the time the second track opens with steel guitar and Derrick Freeman’s somewhat unconvincing channeling of Jim Croce’s “Operator,” we know that something is going on here even though we don’t know what it is. If you’re not suffering from whiplash after the band lurches through a partytime rendition of “I’ll Be Around,” you will be by the time they commence the jaw-dropping recast of the Cars’ “Good Times Roll.” And you still haven’t heard “Ode to Billie Joe” and the mind-boggling séance of Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine),” which approaches Isaac Hayes territory. Here and elsewhere, the fact that Freeman didn’t reach for the Pro Tools to clean up those out of tune vocals feels almost heroic.
You can play this album and hate it, then play it over again and love it. Not that it grows on you, because the next time you might hate it again.
These are not covers. For the most part they are assassinations, a veritable Frankenstein vision of a pop chop shop. Painful moments inhabit space alongside sheer genius, like the amazing horn arrangement behind Freeman’s hair-raising vocal on the Commodores’ “Sail On.” The accomplishments of the assembled musicians, starting with Freeman himself, indicate that we are not dealing with amateur hamhandedness here. And it’s clearly (I think) not a joke, although Freeman’s original weed-dealing tune, “One Bud” segues into a rewrite of Chic’s “Good Times,” suggesting that humor is at least a small part of the intent. But the deadpan is so perfect.
My only explanation for this demented classic is the presence of co-producer Jimbo (monster bass) Mathus, whose fingerprints have appeared on many an otherworldly project in the past. Freeman thanks Mathis for being “an alien” on the liner notes, just a few lines after a tip of the hat to God, the proof of whose existence may actually be this recording.