James Kochalka has long been one of Vermont's art-scene treasures, churning out comic books full of playful squiggles and a sick, smart sense of humor. But he's a polarizing artist; despite legions of fanatic followers, there are plenty of people who shake their heads -- or get downright angry -- at his outsider art. Still, love him or hate him, it's hard to deny that Kochalka has a knack for getting himself noticed. (For example, notice his weekly cartoon in Seven Days.)
Some time during his ascension to comic-book fame, Kochalka started writing songs. Employing a revolving cast of local louts as a backing band, he crafted himself, Bowie-like, into James Kochalka Superstar, a raucous, windmill-kicking rock god.
This past year, Kochalka netted a contract with hip major label Rykodisc. Our Most Beloved is a collection of 25 gems representing the best moments from Kochalka's previously released -- and increasingly hard-to-find -- records.
It's safe to say these tunes will not convert anyone who already despises Kochalka's comics. But those who get a kick out of low-brow sexual references, clever rock cliches and comedy will be tickled pink. "Magic Finger" is an old-school classic. "It's my dink, it's my dink/It's my magic finger/Pointing at all the pretty girls," Kochalka croons, over a barrage of crisp guitars. Elsewhere, he turns the attention from his favorite appendage to perverted space travelers ("Bad Astronaut"), binge drinking ("Keg Party") and the wonders of corn ("Corn on the Cob"). "Don't Trust Whitey" is spooky, mid-tempo pop noir, while "Put Down the Gun" just may be the best tune dealing with Kurt Cobain's suicide ever set to disc.
Musically, the band takes Kochalka's singsong melodies and off-key vocals and turns them into irresistible tunes filled with live-wire guitar mayhem and bobbling synths. The CD liner notes that nobody remembers who played what on each song, but the ragged yet tuneful playing of ex-Burlingtonians such as Jason Cooley and Pistol Stamen is key to transforming Kochalka's demented poems into swaggering rock 'n' roll.
The accompanying DVD features a handful of hilarious videos, including a couple of cuts commissioned by Nickelodeon.
Kochalka is far more than a kitsch act; he's a talented songwriter capable of penning tunes that marry laugh-out-loud lyrics with open-armed hooks and guitar savagery. Our Most Beloved works as both a terrific introduction for newbies and a great mix for long-time Kochalka fans.