This is not my first exposure to Nathan Nelson's freewheeling Twin-Cities improv collective, but it may as well have been, as the droning kosmische psychedelia of last year's Embrace You Millions provided no hint at all of the dramatic stylistic reinvention looming on the horizon. To my ears, the band's entertaining new direction is best described as "James Chance fronts the B-52s," but the album's description goes even further and promises both "a spiritually-charged journey" and "a shit-kicking party record." The fact that Presents emphatically delivers on the latter claim is quite an impressive feat indeed, as the number of shit-kicking party records successfully recorded by shapeshifting collectives of synth and space rock enthusiasts tends to historically be quite low. To their everlasting credit, American Cream Band buck that trend quite decisively, as Nelson seems literally evangelical in his desire to make a fun and raucous party album and he assembled one hell of a killer band to bring that dream to life.
The "building blocks" for Presents were originally recorded back in December 2021, as Nelson brought ten musicians to Cannon Falls' Pachyderm studio to "live together," "eat together," and "lay down some drum-heavy sessions." That studio choice was presumably quite deliberate, as Nelson seems like a guy who is intuitively attuned to seeking and setting the right vibe and Pachyderm birthed quite a few iconic albums in its first heyday (The Wedding Present's Seamonsters and PJ Harvey's Rid of Me being two prime examples) and became a post-foreclosure labor of love for the late engineer John Kuker in more recent years.
Amusingly, I half-expected to see a classic album from The Cramps in Pachyderm's history, as my second glib description of Presents would be something akin to "what if The Electric Mayhem were possessed by Lux Interior's ghost?" If that sounds like mere hyperbole, I present "Dr. Doctor" as my supporting evidence, as Nelson confidently proclaims that he is a witch doctor over a driving groove enlivened by skwonking sax and, of course, call-and-response vocals from a spirited group of "witches." Nelson follows that bold choice by doubling down even harder on kitschy fun, as the creative revelation at the heart of "Banana" seems to be that the word "banana" makes a very catchy hook if you tack on an extra "na" and throw in some very enthusiastic backing vocalists.
The band's streak of spiritual indebtedness to classic "Monster Mash"-style novelty records sadly winds to a close with "Royal Tears," but at least it ends with quite an exclamation point, as Nelson tosses off an entertaining parade of lines like "do you accept wet cash?" while Cole Pulice unleashes a honking and squealing sax frenzy (though the catchy refrain of "splish, splish, splash" still ultimately steals the show). Unexpectedly, "Royal Tears" is followed by a second top-tier highlight in a very different vein, as Nelson sets down his mic for a remarkably credible stab at a Feli Kuti-style afrobeat groove ("Birds Don't Try") that is further enhanced by a smoking sax solo and some spacy synth touches.
Curiously, a few of the remaining three pieces also harken back to the softer, trippier incarnations of the band, but the heart of the album is truly the four-song run that culminates in the one-two punch of "Royal Tears" and "Birds Don't Try." Notably, listening to this album pointedly reminds me of a show that I recently attended in which one band played their fucking hearts out, but were nevertheless blown off the stage by the effortless charisma and casual cool of another band on the bill.
Some people simply channel everything wonderful about rock music and some people do not (for example, a note-perfect rendition of Exile on Main Street performed by me would be absolute shit). For Presents at least, Nelson and his constellation of talented collaborators clearly have whatever "it" is, as they hit the mark with impressive regularity while organically embodying everything that is good and cool about raw, decadent, and spontaneous rock music.