July 1992


Off the Charts

On the Blank Generation

Little Jack Melody with His Young Turks (Four Dots): I don’t know what they’ve been slipping into the salsa down in Denton, Texas, but it seems to have had a strange effect on the local music scene. First there was Brave Combo, the pioneering polka-rock band that started out touring mental institutions with accordion-fueled renditions of Jimi Hendrix tunes, among other eldritch things.

And now, on the Combo’s own Four Dots label, comes Little Jack Melody—actually a disenchanted rock bassist—who says he grew so weary of what he calls the epic conventions of standard rock groups ("the huge equipment, the attitude, the bombast, another gratuitous guitar solo...") that he decided to rethink the idea of a band from the bottom up. Melody’s acoustic quintet, the Young Turks, features tuba, banjo, soprano sax, clarinet, and –most distinctively—the wheezing bleat of the foot-powered pump organ called a harmonium.

The music is angular and sardonic in a Kurt Weill mode and intermittently reminiscent of Tom Waits (although Melody’s airy, faux naif baritone bears little resemblance to Waits’s trademark nicotine-basted bellow). But Melody’s lyrical conceptions are original. He dreams of marching on Switzerland and curing the natives of their smug complacency ("Happy nations have no history/let’s go give ‘em some"). He sings of his weariness with modern reality ("I can’t remember the reason I woke up this morning/Maybe awake is what’s left at the end of a dream").

In "The Dance Lesson," he trains a knowing eye on the eternal spectacle of a young man and woman falling head over heels in love, for reasons they’re unlikely to fully comprehend: "Blame it on the moon/Blame it on the mystery/Blame it on the mom and dad who wrote your sordid history." Melody is hardly a run-of-the-mill romantic ("What they called love, let’s call lingerie," he croons), but he does place faith in the transcendent powers of art and imagination, wondering at one point, "If dreamers felt at home/Would there be a sky to roam/Would there be a tale to tell?"

There’s no lack of musical surprises (the Beethoven chorale, with German lyrics by Friedrich Schiller; the finger-snapping Creation fable that casts Frank Sinatra as God and features a fairly amazing, fully synthesized Big Band impersonation), but Melody could use a few more strong hooks. Nevertheless, this debut has literary depth and a warm, inventive sound that should keep all ears cocked for a follow-up.

















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