King Kong, by Arrott Hartford. Courtesy of Drag City
By Jay Ruttenberg
Track 8 – “Me Hungry” by King Kong
Slint released its final album, Spiderland, in 1991—yet somehow, by the middle of the decade, the quartet seemed synonymous with Louisville indie rock. Its bleak guitars, irregular meters, and abrupt mood swings had become pervasive. A trail of grim-faced musicians came in the band’s wake. Palace Brothers and the For Carnation had ties to Slint; more plentiful were its clones, each approaching its craft with a gravity typically reserved for other pursuits, such as lowering the body of a nemesis into an unmarked grave.
Yet for a miniscule (enlightened?) cult, the greatest band to emerge from Slint’s orbit has always been King Kong. Its focal point and sole mainstay is Ethan Buckler, who quit as Slint’s bassist after the band’s first album, then recruited its other members to back him on King Kong’s debut 7-inch, 1989’s Movie Star. From its first rumblings, King Kong proved Slint’s tonal opposite. The band’s records are full of good cheer and are even danceable. Often, the most prominent instrument is the organ, played with a breezy air suggesting the slapstick sequence of a cartoon. Compounding this impression is Buckler’s awkward singing: Neither earnest nor wry, he just sounds goofy, like a child baritone. Even when singing about relatively staid subjects—urban machismo, our loneliness in the universe—he seems to be reciting a joke. It is the musical equivalent of Will Ferrell’s face.
Me Hungry, King Kong’s third LP and overlooked magnum opus, came out in 1995. It is a concept album that never strays from its narrative—the rare rock opera to subvert the corniness and pretentiousness inherent in the genre. Across nine songs, the story involves a caveman’s love affair with a yak (with a crow on its back), which sours as our protagonist learns to hunt, meets a cavewoman, and, in what amounts to perhaps the cruelest breakup documented in American song, eventually slays the yak for supper. Throughout, Amy Greenwood sings the narration while Buckler portrays the caveman, who struggles with the subject-object confusion that plagued our forefathers. (“Me want berries from bushes!” goes his opening line on the first song, “Animal”—a resounding star’s entrance.)
As an indie-besotted college student when Me Hungry was released, I took to the album immediately. Rarely in life have I felt so alone. Music snob friends turned up their noses at the lighthearted funk and ridiculous story; critics were largely indifferent, occasionally hostile. At the time, I ascribed the chilly reception to polite society’s general wariness of humor in music. Maybe!
Yet revisiting Me Hungry decades later, no longer a teenager quick to chortle, I’m not sure the album even qualifies as a comedy. Not merely the joke I had celebrated and others had dismissed, the album now seems even stronger than I had presumed. With its cheery funk façade and lyrical singularity, Me Hungry has an eccentricity that proponents of more explicitly outré fare, be it stark minimalism or anarchic noise, could never dream of achieving. Might this be at the root of its anemic fan base?
Me Hungry pivots on the title track, the album’s narrative climax. By this point, the caveman has dumped the yak for the cavewoman. The narrative has jumped forward by a decade (via the instrumental funk interlude “Ten Long Years”) and the ice age has arrived (heralded in the song “White Stuff,” with a minimalism worthy of the Ramones, by the narrator’s crooning, “Hot, warm, cool, cold”). Musically, “Me Hungry” skews dark—or at least what qualifies as such in the sun-splattered realm of King Kong—with jagged guitars nipping at ominous organ lines. Lyrically, it repeats motifs from across the record: hunger, berry consumption, and the need to “push the little berries out”—cave-speak for defecation.
King Kong’s record is so smart that, at a glance, it appears imbecilic. (It’s this quality, more than any number of safety pins or snappy guitars—to say nothing of the melancholic ferocity of bands like Slint—that proves the hallmark of unadulterated punk.) As the song’s organ lines swell, the caveman encounters his former beloved: “lonely old yak, icicle eye, crow on its back.” Around him, berries have frozen and cave-children stand famished. “Me hungry,” the caveman declares. He clubs the yak; the innocence of man withers.