The Remains of Tom Lehrer
When I look at my music collection and glance across the cassettes, I usually wonder why I haven't replaced them all with CDs yet (beside, you know, money). The Remains Of Tom Lehrer is as good a reason as any, since this 3-CD box set of the complete recordings of the finest musical comedian since Spike Jones (who, when you think about it, was really more of a comic musician) didn't duplicate anything in my collection that wasn't analog. And while Lehrer's albums have been available again for a while now, Rhino has, as usual, put together a package so authoritative and beautiful (with 80 pages of hardbound(!) liner notes) that the individual CDs seem a little sparse in comparison.
The original albums are, of course, indispensable in themselves; if they weren't, collecting them would be a fool's errand. What Remains does, besides just slapping them together, is put them in a context that allows both the albums and the individual songs to communicate with each other in a way that may not have been so explicit before. Disc One includes the studio recordings Songs By Tom Lehrer (1953) and More of Tom Lehrer (1959), while Disc Two's Tom Lehrer Revisited (1960) and the inconceivably good An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer (1959) present the exact same song program in a live setting. The difference is extraordinary, a reminder that a live audience responding strongly to a performer, regardless of whether they're applauding or (more than once) just hissing, can energize the performance, even if it's just one guy singing at a piano.
Listening to it all at once also puts a few of Lehrer's running obsessions into sharp relief. The Cold War certainly seeped deeply into his consciousness; there are plenty of A-bomb jokes within and informing his songs, including "So Long, Mom (A Song For World War III)" (prefaced with the disclaimer, "if any songs are going to come out of World War III, we better start writing them now") and the unsurpassed "We Will All Go Together When We Go," which is clearly the best, funniest and most optimistic song about mass nuclear destruction that will ever be written. Lehrer also seems to have really, really hated folk music, which was (not entirely coincidentally) peaking in popularity at precisely this time as well. "The Folk Song Army" mocks fans and performers, while his live introductions of "The Irish Ballad" and "Clementine" ("a song with no recognizable merit whatsoever") show nothing but contempt for the form itself.
Maybe he was just upset that music-making was falling out of the hands of trained professionals (a fair conclusion given his statement that "the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people"). Lehrer's unheralded gifts lay in his piano playing, which encompasses a phenomenal range of musical styles, from popular Broadway showtunes to tango, country to military marches, ragtime to German waltzes. "Clementine," in particular, shows off his superb playing, imagining famous composers taking a stab at the folk standard; in quick order, he barrels through Cole Porter, hipster jazz, classical opera and Gilbert & Sullivan-style pomp without missing a beat or sounding even remotely inauthentic. Take away the wit, humor and intelligence infused in his lyrics and Lehrer surely still possessed the talent to become a professional musician in any style he wanted.
What he chose, though, was comedy (more or less...in the past 50 years, the man's written only 47 songs, all but a handful before 1965), which has a notoriously brief shelf life. Astoundingly, Lehrer's songs not only hold up almost a half century later, they're still funny more than 16 years after I first heard them and, in some cases, get even funnier as I grow older and (ostensibly) wiser. One reason is that Lehrer's deftness as a lyricist is on par with the cleverest writers of the twentieth century; some of his best songs display a playfulness with the language that rivals the skill of Cole Porter and Oklahoma!/Carousel-era Oscar Hammerstein II. Lehrer is a master of restraint as well, structuring his lyrics so as to never telegraph the joke, so that when it comes, its power is devastating (notice, for example, how the verses describing his fellow grunts in "It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier" don't really betray their comic nature until the punchline).
The other reason for Lehrer's amazing longevity is that he never once underestimated the intelligence of his audience. Graduating from Harvard at an age when most people are getting out of high school, he was clearly smart but never smug or condescending. He assumed that people were getting his jokes; if not, they would eventually. It was, in fact, as a direct result of listening to Lehrer that I became acquainted with such varied and lofty concepts as Lent, Gustav Mahler, base 8, animal husbandry, The Power of Positive Thinking, "fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly," Vatican 2, the Bracero program, Lloyd's of London, Lady Chatterly's Lover and the tradition of giving a matador both ears and the tail of a bull. Having lived with these songs for more than half of my life, what I found most surprising was not that I was still laughing at most of the jokes but that I was just now getting others, especially on 1965's ultra-topical That Was The Year That Was, on which Lehrer still wrings laughter out of topics that mean not much to anybody nowadays (the exception, I hasten to point out, not the rule).
Rhino being Rhino (and a box set being a box set), they hook us anyway with the requisite bonus tracks. I could do without the 1960 orchestral cuts of songs Lehrer had already recorded solo; the original performances were already basically perfect, and all these versions do is try to make Lehrer into Spike Jones. It doesn't work. But the songs Lehrer wrote and recorded for The Electric Company in 1971 and 1972 are brilliant: fun, bouncy and exceedingly clever. "L-Y" is a lesson on adverbs that is more enjoyable than anything should be that can be described as "a lesson on adverbs." "O-U (The Hound Song)" is a nice operatic trifle made indispensable by Lehrer's downtroddenly canine delivery. And the man apparently can't stop: among the recent recordings is "N Apostrophe T," an excursion into contractions in the guise of a dialogue between a cranky hermit and a friendly boy, and "That's Mathematics," which tells us why those numbers are so danged important. The best of the bunch, though, is 1997's "I Got It From Agnes," so jaunty and subtle that its dirty little subject matter sits there waiting to be discovered instead of screaming at the top of its lungs. Which means, when you think about it, that Tom Lehrer has learned nothing about comedy in the past fifty years. Which is why, when you think about it, his music is certain to endure for at least fifty more. (MH)
The Electric Tickle EP
My main regret about The Electric Tickle is that, well, it ends too damn soon. Over just five tracks, Philadelphia/South Jersey-dwellers Lenola establish themselves as one of the best pop bands out there since Teenage Fanclub. In fact, the whole thing's so good I kept poring over the liner notes, absolutely sure that I'd heard at least a few of these guys before -- nobody this cool just comes out of nowhere (or, out of South Jersey, as it were, which is pretty close by). "Slipping Under The Shadows" bears comparing to The Beta Band's "Dry The Rain," particularly in the melding of electronic samples and manipulation, lazy-day vocals, and some quick slide guitar touches; it also makes me think of Sebadoh's quieter moments, though, too, mostly thanks to the band's loose, nonchalant sound throughout. "Driving Over To Your House" steps in a slightly different direction, this time towards Fanclub-land, with a pretty, tinkly piano/guitar ballad worth crying over, and "Black Eyes" is a minor gem of pseudo-psychedelic pop, just perfect for those sunshiny days when staying indoors seems downright criminal. "Small Shin Splints" is perhaps the low point on here, but that's only because I don't already have the words memorized, like I do with the rest -- it's a fine piece of nod-your-head-and-smile pop on its own -- and then Lenola closes things out with a Silver Jews cover, "Inside the Golden Days of Missing You," complete with delicate banjo. Supposedly, this EP's just a teaser for their next full-length, Treat Me To Some Life, due out in early 2001 -- I'll be waiting. (JH)
(File 13 Records -- P.O. Box 2302, Philadelphia, PA. 19103; http://www.file-13.com/; Tappersize Records -- 884 Greentree Sq. Rt. 73N, Marlton, NJ, 08053; Lenola -- http://www.lenola.com/)
A Product of You
Houston area-based Liquid Youth are a band on the rise. They have been packing clubs all over Southeast Texas for some time now considering their young age -- these guys have the talent and skill to go far someday, and A Product of You is a sample of what is to come. They blend post-hardcore bands together with the ease of bands like Silverchair. The only bad thing is this CD sounds a bit too much like Silverchair, mainly due to vocalist/guitarist Kody Kuehn's uncanny similarity to the Australian anorexic rock star. When they find their own sound, I believe that they have what it takes to go far in this crazy music business. (RZ)
(Liquid Youth -- http://www.liquidyouth.8m.com/)
The Lonely Kings
With cleaner production, the Lonely Kings could be just another Blink-182, without the snot, or the Offspring, without the smugness. But then again, no, they couldn't, because the failings of the production are so much of a piece with the failings of the band. What If? is too organic, there's too much bleedthrough from each instrument, for anything here to reach the crystallized highs of "All The Small Things" or "The Kids Aren't All Right" (let alone the lows of "What's My Age Again?" or "Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)"). That's the case with the performances, earnest but aimless rumblebuzzing, and the songs, leaden verses about something or other which connect to choruses that don't float. And in the end, for better or worse, snot and smugness is what those other bands bring to the table. The Lonely Kings would do better to show up with something, anything, of their own rather than sit there, waiting to be served. (MH)
(Fearless Records -- 13772 Goldenwest St. #545, Westminster, CA. 92683; http://www.fearlessrecords.com/; The Lonely Kings -- http://www.lonelykings.com/)
So, I guess it's somewhat fitting that these folks compare themselves to The Doors and The Patti Smith Group, since the music on DNA sounds almost completely dated, like the band themselves is living out some sort of late-'60s/early-'70s rock fantasy. Unfortunately, they don't have the energy or originality of either of the two aforementioned bands, and that's the sad part. I had my fingers crossed after reading the above comparisons on the band's Website, along with that bit where Keith Richards called their song "L.A. River" "marvelous" (dunno what Mr. Richards was on that night, but it must've been fun...) and lots of stuff about how they think the band should be more like a free-flowing jazz ensemble. Good intentions, but surprisingly, DNA is no more than dull, mostly overdone rock, kind of like what L7 might sound like if they were really worn out and feeling uninspired. I guess the "free-flowing jazz ensemble" bit comes from their habit of spiraling off into endless stoner-rock jams, like on "Las Vegas the Instrumental."
There are a few interesting bits here, like that great break in the middle of "Coyote" where everybody's just pounding on their instruments and howling, but they never last; after a few seconds, it's over, and the song slides back into predictability. Then there's the AC/DC-meets-Sonic Youth cover, "Night Prowler PCH," which initially had me hoping but which then proceeded to make two once-good songs boring (at the same time; is that a record of some sort?). "Pimpin" is probably the only really intriguing song on the album, with it's L.A.-style hustler rant about making a movie with somebody else's money, but even there the music isn't what holds my interest, and the entertainment value of the vocals fades quickly. Again, good intentions, but... (JH)
(Brain Floss Records -- 8409 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90069; http://www.brainfloss.com/; Lucid Nation -- http://www.lucidnation.com/)
The Lucky Stars
Hollywood & Western
Are you a country fan that's sick of all the so-called "Young Country?" If so, you will LOVE this CD. It's the very best of what country music was in the late '40s and early '50s; it has old-school country crooning with your typical acoustic and slide guitars, not to mention an upright piano and a bass fiddle. This was the first band that Buzz Osbourne from the Melvins signed to Ipecac as the head of A&R and I can see why. These guys know how to kick it old-school C&W style. (RZ)
(Ipecac Recordings -- P.O. Box 1197, Alameda, CA. 94501; http://www.ipecac.com/; The Lucky Stars -- http://www.theluckystars.com/)