Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Rings on Their Fingers and Tears for Their Crowns: Victor & Penny Tell a Little Tale Called American Pop
It's hard to imagine a record more ambitious and less pretentious than Victor & Penny's Antique Pop. From the moment Erin McGrane (Penny) kicks things off with her unadorned jaunty ukelele, pretension seems out of the question. Though the most democratic of stringed instruments is soon joined by Jeff Freling (Victor) with smart, sharp rollicking counterpoints, and though McGrane's voice rings forth precise and beautiful, the song is a musical smile. The duet soon makes it clear that the joy these two experience playing together is as high as this performance aims, and the record hits the mark.
So where does the ambition come in? Well, first, it would be a terrible mistake to underestimate the brilliance of the guitar part that dances all around the rhythm section provided by that uke and Jimmy Sutton's vibrant upright bass. And this is a terrific guitar record from beginning to end. Freling's two instrumentals more than hold their own with the classic covers that provide most of the album's architecture. "Victor's Dream" is, at once, delicately playful, yearning and tinged with remorse. And "Rickshaw Chase," his guitar battle (dance?) with Gonzalo Bergara is no less exciting and only slightly less ominous than their work together on the dazzling sabre dance of a face off on Django Reinhardt favorite, "Limehouse Blues," an eerie run through the opium dens of London's Chinatown ports.
And the Django Reinhardt nods from Freling only hint at the ambition. After all, this is a wonderful primer of the musics that attempted to reach beyond blackface minstrelsy and burlesque and build that first mainstream American pop audience. Most of these songs were by songwriters born in the late 19th century who worked vaudeville and helped build Tin Pan Alley from the early days of the record industry and the birth of radio.
Songwriting teams like Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, who wrote the opener "Exactly Like You," were Irish and Polish Americans who made a name for themselves writing for musicians in Harlem's Cotton Club. Black songwriter Shelton Brooks, who wrote the Sophie Tucker hit featured here, "Some of These Days," made a good part of his living as an imitator of the great African-American blackface minstrel Bert Williams. Tucker herself was a Ukranian-born immigrant, who also performed in blackface and was known as "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas." The Jewish songwriting team of Herscher and Klein offer up the whimsical "Dirt-Dishin' Daisy," which also sounds like a natural for the minstrel circuit. And New Orleans born black songwriter and performer, Sam Theard, also known as Spo-Dee-Odee, gives us the great "You Rascal You." The Chitlin' Circuit meets the Borscht Belt over and over here, and that idea of the American melting pot that refuses to become homogenous is, to my ears, the central theme of Victor & Penny's Antique Pop.
This is music about love--giddy "Exactly Like You," rekindled "I'll Never Say 'Never Again' Again," and under negotation "Anything You Say." It's also music about broken-hearted justice "Some of These Days," human decency "Dirt Dishin' Daisy," social injustice "Limehouse Blues," and those ideals we manufacture out of our pasts, "Way Back Home." More often than on Barclay Martin's wonderful "Slow Dance" (but certainly flaming brightly there), these are songs about the ongoing dialogue between danger and desire. In short, these are songs about all of the vagaries of the human condition, as consistently substantive as (and often more supple and light on their crazy feets than) any great American music from any era.
And Antique Pop is not quite like anything else. The mix of Erin McGrane's crystalline, forthright vocal style and Jeff Freling's megaphone-like vocal distortions is every bit as punk rock in its way as the tension between the most rudimentary acoustic instruments pushing at guitar feedback that sometimes sounds on the verge of flash fire. Sure Victor & Penny can play a cabaret or a nightclub and leave young and old music fans with smiles on their faces, but for anyone to think they've even begun to grasp all that this music says and does would be a silly, regrettable mistake.