16 July, 2014

Recent Love (All Star Game Edition)

Daniel Bonespur, Dead People
Selections from The Clumsy Man and Rehearsing Failure
So here’s an experiment.
Usually, I and the rest of the SD&A crew (absent as they are), review rock, rap, alt-country type stuff. I think the only time I may have ever reviewed a musical soundtrack was maybe when I was gushing over West Side Story or something. (Fuck you, West Side Story is a jam and a half for your ass.) So I’m not immediately familiar with the wider world of musical theater, even though dating Georgie for three years was a good primer and I saw things like Sweeney Todd, Sunday In the Park With George, Into the Woods, etc. But I’ve never had to dissect or analyze or otherwise simply critique a musical soundtrack. Ever. I’m not familiar enough with the genre or form to feel like I can give adequate remarks about the material in front of me and I feel like I may do the material a disservice by:
  1. Approaching it as I would a rock record.
  2. Having not seen either the shows the songs here are intended for, as my commentary would be devoid of context.
So, I open the CD - yeah, I got a physical product to review this time around and, for real, it’s actually some pretty cool packaging - and I check the little card inside.
Voice… Bass… Violin… Bassoon… Piano…
No drums.
No drums.
First key indicator that this is not going to be a big shambling scary rock monster record that I’m accustomed to. But, hey, I don’t know that. I mean, look at the list of instruments there. Those instruments can do pretty much anything. And look at some bands that made some powerful records without the use of conventional “rock” instruments. Throbbing Gristle comes to mind, and they were just using, like, oscillators. Suicide pretty much informed half of Springsteen’s Nebraska - OK, so really just “Frankie Teardrop” informed “State Trooper” - and all Suicide was was one guy on a farfisa organ and another guy howling sheer madness.
And this is called Dead People. So shit could still get crazy.
“Wind in Your Veins” starts off as a gentle piano waltz with vocal accompaniment. “I’m always at home when it rains” is a pretty killer line leading up to the chorus where the vocalist, an unlisted male tenor who I’m going to guess is not the Tara listed in the credits, belts out a pretty powerful vibrato so loud I had to turn the fucking thing down for a minute. That’s not a bad thing at all. I just wasn’t expecting homie to blow my ears out. And I’m going to level with you, I detect a bit of a John Barry knick in the section immediately following the second chorus. (And that’s OK because we all know that John Barry used that riff twice himself between You Only Live Twice and Midnight Cowboy. If anybody knicked John Barry, he did it to himself first.) Also? “Lay my head on a spike and I sleep through the night” is the best line Trent Reznor never thought up.
“That’s My Way (Baal Song)”… Where the fuck did that guitar come from? There’s no guitar listed in the credits. Well, OK, homie. Your record, your credits. Maybe those are just the credits for one of the shows and the soundtrack here is different.
Enough griping about that. When I first saw this song title, this was the song I wanted to hear, because - and you’ll pardon me if I don’t have my copy of The Satanic Bible near me, it’s in the closet in one of those four beer crates I call my library - I’m pretty sure Baal is one of the infernal names.
“That’s my Way (Baal Song)” starts off as a slow, somber country number, invoking the spaghetti western image of an unnamed stranger on horseback under blazing sun.
And then things get lewd. I mean, right in the first verse, aforementioned unnamed tenor is talking about fucking in a barn. By the second verse, we’re talking about S&M and cunnilingus. But the vocal melody against the sparse guitar and bass arrangement gives it such a creepy atmosphere that there’s no way anybody’s getting turned on by this. And when the violin comes in, playing a sort of Klezmer or gypsy solo, I’m pretty sure that somebody’s about to get hammer-murdered. Thankfully, our unnamed tenor decides he’d rather pull a Sinatra and use the third verse to say, “See ya, baby,” when his paramour is still raring to go and he’s all, “Yeah, I’m kind of done with this.”
Still, I thought somebody was going to get hammer-murdered. This would be a fitting soundtrack for a hammer-murder.
“Woods Suite No. 3”… You know we’re on a classical tip when we have suites and numbers.
Wait. Where are the woodwinds? This has that guitar again. OK, so I listen to the whole thing. There’s no mention of woods in the lyrics.
OK, so “Woods Suite No. 3” is only a tad melancholy, it’s light and breezy, with more sparse guitar arrangement and with minimal lyrics - there’re only four lines to the whole thing, none of which are repeated - that strike me as vaguely Alighierian, even though the River Styx and the City of Dis are not properly named. It sounds like it could be a segue piece in one of the shows for its short duration.
And not to sound like an insult, but I could hear this in a mumblecore or Zooey Deschanel movie and not think it out of place. Hell, it’s a bajillion times better than the standard-issue soundtracks those movies employ, you know, where everything has to have a ukulele and a xylophone and whistling and some bird-voiced woman cooing because that’s what Arrested Development and half the cinematic output of the Duplass brothers had. “Woods Suite No. 3” has just as much whimsy while not being sappy or generic like that shit.
“The First Time I Smelled Ham”? I’m going to confess to you that I did not hold a lot of hope for this one based on the title. I mean, Rage Against the Machine could call a song that because we’d all know that Zach de la Rocha would be hating cops again. Public Enemy could call a song that because we’d all know that Chuck D would be really hating the cops again. Flava would come in and tell you about 911 being a joke during the bridge and then Chuck D would come back in and tick down a list of police corruptions that happen daily.
Daniel Bonespur, however, isn’t bringing up the cops. If anything, “The First Time I Smelled Ham” seems to be a bit more of a Dadaist (a word I use far too much lately) (hell, I’ve probably been misusing it) aside. It begins with a three-part vocal against an echo-laden percussive track, with a whole-note chant in the background while our unnamed tenor and the listed Tara sing the refrain basically at each other, one panned to each speaker. And then there comes this kick drum seemingly out of sync with the rest of the percussion and a big synth drone that leads into a synth-only refrain of “Wind in Your Veins”. And then it’s over. Just like that. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher but, hey, not everything in life is supposed to make sense for your convenient compartmentalization.
“Death for Bonnie & Clyde” is a guitar & two-voice arrangement, this time a ballad that, when the violins come in, sounds like it would fit in nicely in either a Ken Burns documentary or, say, as the music played over the theater PA before a midnight screening of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Perhaps out of all the songs on Dead People, this is the one that is best suited for presentation without context. It’s pretty much between “That’s My Way (Baal Song)” and “Death for Bonnie & Clyde” for my favorite songs off this record.
And then we come to “Body’s What I Want”, which closes out Dead People and clocks in at nearly four minutes, forty seconds. From the sound of this one, from the tone of the lyrics - “The time it takes is all it takes away” - I’m going to go ahead and assume that this is a show closer, the song that resolves all those plot points that we don’t know because we weren’t at the show to see the parts that are the book.
You see, in musical theater, the book is all the stuff that isn’t the music or lyrics. I think. I don’t date a musical geek anymore.
Anyway, out of everything on this record, which I’ve liked so far, the only thing I have a quibble with is the chorus to this song - “It’s your body that I want and I want it without any clothes on.” It’s not by any means a bad line it’s just that pairing that line with gentle guitar balladeering is a little cheesy. Like chest-hair-on-the-record-cover cheesy. If you’re going to break out a line like that, you better break out your R&B influences. I mean, you’ve got to have a bit of brass or strings, you’ve got to have some wah-guitar, you’ve got to have that deep, low bass, and, ferfucksake, you can’t sing that line in a delicate tenor voice, no matter how nice your voice may be, no. You’ve got to fucking belt out a line like that, get a little growl in your voice, like this…
[smooth bass line, minimalist wah guitar echoing low in the mix] “Bay-BEH!” [brass hit cues the soaring string arrangement] “It’s yo’ BAH-DEH!” [double brass hit accompanied by two big guitar wahs] “It’s yo’ bah-deh that ah wont!” [string arrangement ceases ascension and begins a descent until it plateaus in a comfortable place in the key] “OOOhhh, that ah wont that ah wont that ah wont!” [brass and wah guitar hit again] “And ah’m telling’ you!” [brief ascension of the string arrangement that immediately returns to descent] “WWWAAAHHHOOOAAAHHH ah’m telling’ you!” [rapid ascension of the strings] “That ah wont it!” [brass and wah hit] “AAAooohhh, yes, ah wont it!” [strings come to their final, highest pitch in the arrangement] “Ah wont it without any clothes on!” [strings immediately cut out of the mix, arrangement returns to a quite, sultry groove for the verse section]
Granted, my version takes a little longer to deliver that line but I, you know, I can get behind that. Color me vanilla for sticking with the traditional delivery of sexuality in music but that’s the formula that’s worked since time immemorial for lyrics of that nature.
Other than that one little quibble, I have to say that Dead People is pretty solid. Give it a listen.

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