Mike Keneally and Beer for Dolphins – Sluggo!: Super Deluxe Edition (1997; 2013 reissue)

That Sluggo! — perhaps Mike Keneally’s first, best album of real songcraft — came together at all, considering the circumstances, remains something of a miracle.

Before, the former Frank Zappa sideman had recorded music the old fashioned way, setting aside studio time and constructing albums in a fish bowl of creative solitude. That’s not the way it went, however, in the run up to this 1997 release, which is seeing a dramatic reworking as a multi-disc Super Deluxe Edition reissue. Keneally had just become part of Steve Vai’s touring band, and so things came together as inspiration hit.

He began work on “I’m Afraid” (a touching ode to a daughter whose dad was out on the road being a guitar god) in a dressing room on tour; “Chatfield Manor” (a touching ode to the man cave-like solace of a house owned by the same guitar god’s webmaster buddy) sparked while Keneally in an airport. He recorded when Sluggo! could, along with bassist Bryan Beller, drummer Joe Travers and others — and mixed it all on the fly. Another tour with Vai beckoned.

That’s where the trouble began for Keneally, who more than a decade and a half later was still unhappy with the way this project sounded. Sluggo!, named after the punky sidekick in the old Nancy comic strips, began as a muddy analog mix with not nearly enough high end and ended up with another quickly done remix to DAT that seemed to sacrifice everything else. That made an opportunity to reconfigure the album, which he’d let go out of print for more than a decade, a true labor of love.

This set includes a new stereo mix on Disc 1, plus two bonus tracks (“Craney,” featuring the late Mark Craney on drums; and “Bob Dylan’s Nose,” an incomplete minor treasure found on an old cassette), along with four additional mixes on Disc 2 — including a stunning 5.1 surround version. That’s to say nothing of Disc 3′s joys, as Keneally piles on live video from Beer for Dolphins shows in Wisconsin, Texas and California in 1998, more bonus audio (including “Frozen Beef,” another half-finished cassette demo) and even the original stereo version of Sluggo!

This kind of immersive experience only underscores what a huge leap forward the album remains for Mike Keneally, the big-bang moment that led directly to more recent triumphs of compact craft like Wing Beat Fantastic and You Must Be This Tall. Not that there weren’t still some eye-poppingly inventive, almost art-rock elements along the way — from the found-object piano signature on “I, Drum-Running, Am Clapboard Bound,” to the crazy-ass rhythm sampling on “Looking For Nina” to the fever-dream ending of “I Guess I’ll Peanut,” which I’m pretty sure is the lonesome call of a whale.

Along the way, Keneally’s uniquely intriguing musical persona — part crazy-cool unstructured Zappa weirdness, part crazy-good pop-song savant — finally coalesced. I realized, after listening to it a handful of different ways, and loving it in each of those ways, that the crystalizing moment on this Super Deluxe Edition reissue might just be “Tranquillado.” He constructs one of his most infectious hooks ever, adding a Skunk Baxter-ish solo — even while stopping cold for a segment that sounds like a drunken Bavarian dance, and sharing a lyric that grew out of a short piece about a deeply contemplative but utterly filthy dog. It’s an embyronic triumph, like uncovering the Keneally DNA strand, and it’s never sounded better.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.