Advice From the Happy Hippopotamus
nd so we're brought to the tale of one Craig Minowa of Sandstone, MN. Organic farmer and ecological practivist (that is, "practicing activist," a freebie from me to the cultural hive-mind), he runs his small Earthology label on wind power, geothermal heat, and post-consumer recycled plastic lumber. Reclaimed jewel cases, recycled paper, soy ink, dried leaves for packing materials. All, natch, not for profit. An unreconstructed city-boy like your hack here is baffled: there it is, he says in moments of frustration, apparently it's perfectly possible. When do we all get retrofitted? I wonder what Minowa thinks about all this mess with war in oil-rich territory, skyrocketing fuel prices, and corporate oil-mongers renting out our government. I mean, I'm sure I can guess what he thinks—it's all mad and bad and awful—but how does he feel it most directly; what's the first, wordless, gut response? Blinding fury? Deep sadness? Or that tight little snicker of the powerlessly damned that so many of us (your hack here included) have honed to perfection?
I only ask because, given his eco-practivism, it doesn't show up on this record much at all. No, I'm not about to castigate the man for leaving his politics (is that the correct word?) off this particular table; his decision to live how he would otherwise merely preach, leaving his music to reach into the deeper realms of immediate experience, is more than admirable. Our loudest yellers, our more virulent partisans, and our most dead-eyed spectators could do to take heed. For once, the political is not the least bit personal; the Cloud Cult manifesto begins and ends with nothing so ordinary as the less-than-simple matters of life and death—where they begin and end, converge and dovetail, and separate. This is usually the point in any mention of Minowa or Cloud Cult in which an aching tragedy is aired out, and its resonance and meaning supposedly dissected, but, I imagine, mostly guessed at. I won't touch it. Not just because I couldn't begin to guess at that, or that it feels a bit ghoulish to trot it out and attempt do so, whether or not Minowa has allowed or abetted it, or even barring the pretty-good chance that it does have some resonance or meaning (for anyone else?); but in the face of so much vibrant, defiant life, it simply seems pointless.
The bulk of Happy Hippopotamus seems born from the mind (or minds, as the Cult include a pretty large rotating cast, with Craig as spiritual guide) of a precocious, preternaturally wise child. We're introduced to the "Happy Hippo" early. He loves his happy hippopotamus. She lives under his matt-er-uss. "She leads the way!" he caterwauls. Later, on "Washed Your Car," a breezy jaunt through unrequited puppy love, he recounts how he "mowed your lawn yesterday "and you gave him six bucks and he said, "Let's have some lemonade, "and you said "Go away." He "shoveled your snow with an ice-cream cone" and "tilled your garden with my nose." Even when dealing most directly with the most-un-childlike things, Minowa gives the subject matter a bouncy, almost flippant kick; reminding you that "you've got your bones to make a beat," and "you've got your skin to sing a song, you better sing a super-swell song"—swell?—and elsewhere to "suck it up, even though they spit you out" on the amped-up "Living On the Outside of Your Skin." Minowa flings out his lines like arrows, with a yelp redolent of the most enthusiastic singers-who-can't-really-sing (Isaac Brock, most immediately), and couches them within essentially simple, familiar indie-rock structures—from blaring Mouse-style rave-ups like "Moving to Canada" ("the people watched complacently / And swore their god had meant for it to be this way," the only present-day politics on the record), to quick-strummed acoustic\electric indie-hop like "Living On the Outside...." Cloud Cult's debt to hip-hop beat stylings can't be underestimated; they all but begin the record by festooning it with the bounce and shimmy from "Rock the Bells," and keep the upbeat down for the preponderance of the record’s (admittedly maybe a few songs too long) length.
So perhaps it sounds all too "usual" for some, that the old "spoonful of sugar" trope is such a cliché, but I prefer to think of Advice From the Happy Hippopotamus as joining a long line of wonderful, all-too-necessary, pop that's got little more on its mind than making a celebration out of the real stuff of life—loss, mortality, and decay of all kinds included—and bringing it into the sunlight to be danced upon and trod over. Minowa and crew take it all and keep it real, dealing directly, heart-on-sleeve, without judgment, without simplistic good and evil, without sin or salvation. Just as simple, everyday fact; with a beat you can dance to, and call to just get on with it.
Reviewed by: Jeff Siegel
Reviewed on: 2005-11-29