The News, Stuart, Florida
August 22, 1997
Little Jack Melody’s charming
By Gary Shipes
"I always roll a seven or eleven, and every thought I have is brand new. Those happy bluebirds beyond the rainbow followed the map that I drew."
So sings Little Jack Melody and his Young Turks, a Denton, Texas neo-cabaret quintet inspired by German drinking songs of the 20’s, who’ve made the first real must-hear album of 1997.
The band’s third album, my charmed life, is a charming collection of fanfares for common men and women.
And it’s exceptional.
Offering a wealth of great tunes, versatile playing, and a charismatic frontman with wit to spare, they’ve created a brave new musical world immune to the guitar/bass/drum lineup that has sterilized rock music.
In its place, Little Jack Melody offers new lead instruments for a change. Banjo, pump organ, clarinet, saxophones, accordions and tubas take center stage with the electric guitar making only a cameo appearance. With tempos alternating between tango, waltz, and polka, the listener’s attention is held at gunpoint.
Finally, a real alternative to alternative music.
Inspired by the social, political, and cultural lyrics of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and the oom-pah bounce of Weimar Republic cabaret maestro Frederick Hollaender, band leader Melody felt a kinship with the 70-year-old style that provided the resonance and bite missing in so much of modern music.
Likely to be lumped with current lounge-core bands such as Combustible Edison, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Tipsy, they are actually closer to contemporary European cabaret singers like British crooner Thomas Lang and Dutch chanteuse Mathilde Santing, whose original compositions outnumber the usual jazz standard covers.
Melody is assisted by the talents of his Young Turks-- tuba player Dave Dorbin, saxophonist Jacob Duncan, percussionist Chopper Bergeron, and keyboardist/accordionist Jim Cocke-- four young musicians fresh out of music school willing and eager to tackle the sophisticated music charts Melody serves up.
They rise to the challenge.
The music exudes a calliope world of circuses and carnivals-- it sways. It swings. And, yes, it rocks occasionally, too.
His lyrics are short stories-- vivid, clever and filled with characters we recognize and wish to know more thoroughly, everyday folk dreaming small dreams in a big-dream world.
His influences range from Tom Waits’ skid-row sonatas, Randy Newman’s arcane Americana symphonies and avant-garde jazz artist Carla Bley’s dissonant musings to literary mavericks like barfly writers Hubert Selby Jr. and Raymond Carver. There’s even a hint of Carl Hiassen’s skewered black humor, too.
The band’s light side surfaces in the choice of cover songs. Fans can expect to hear America the Beautiful segue into Sondheim/Bernstein’s America from West Side Story as a hellzapoppin’ jive number; the cheesy organ fantasia of Nino Rota’s score for Fellini’s 8 1/2 mutates into new-wave popette Nena’s 99 Luftballons; and even Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (Ode to Joy) gets the joyful polka treatment it always screamed for-- sung in German, of course.
Their first two albums, On the Blank Generation (1991) and World of Fireworks (1994) defy easy labeling and boast a wealth of classic songs like Babylon, Shetland Ponies to the Moon, Song of Ishmael, On the Blank Generation, That Bastard Moon and A Waltz in Springfield, Missouri.
But nothing prepares for the brilliant singalong Happily Ever After. Re-imagining the Creation story as an updated Oceans 11, with Frank Sinatra as the hipster Supreme Being lording over a glitzy Las Vegas Eden, Melody casts Bobby Darin, Vic Damone and Peggy Lee as biblical Rat Packers.
Set to a synthesized swing arrangement that morphs Benny Goodman with The Buggles, Melody spins his fantastical yarn:
"Once upon a swinging time, Frank Sinatra looked around and he said ‘I’m lonely for some cats and kitties’. So he built himself a man, out of clay the story goes, then he made him a groovy chick so they could mingle. The cat surveyed the lady fair; he purred, ‘I’d know you anywhere’. He introed, ‘Madam, my name is Adam,’ and she said, ‘Buddy, you’re all covered in mud, head to toe,’ and Frank said, ‘Now you will be man and wife,’ they said, ‘Oh do we hafta?’, and they lived happily ever after."
In an unusual act of humility, Melody offered the track to singer Harry Connick Jr., whose career could benefit from such an audacious treat.
Free of the campiness and ironic approach of retro-music scenesters, Melody’s vocals are sweet, gimmick-free and devoted to his song’s characters. Like all great vocalists he inhabits the meaning of a lyric; there is no straining for emotion here. Neither will he use five notes when one will suffice. He conveys each song’s feeling with complete communication, as if his-- and the listener’s-- survival depends on it.
Club tours, regional airplay and an interview on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered have shaped the band’s career arc. A chance meeting with The Firesign Theatre’s David Ossman has blossomed into collaborative favors. The band recently performed a score for Ossman’s theatrical piece, love is a place, based on the life and writings of e.e. cummings, and Ossman reciprocated by reading a stock market voice-over on their latest album.
And it’s that album, my charmed life, that is sure to give the music world a friendly jolt. Produced by Little Jack Melody himself, the album boasts an eclectic roster of talent.
The title track revels in optimism: My charmed life, exuding a savoir-faire, skies always sunny, jokes always funny, one hundred percent is my share," Melody boasts as his band roars like gangbusters. Jacob Duncan’s dizzying sax blowing swirls along as Melody admits with gusto, "I’m the guy who only has enchanted evenings, I’m the guy who gets the girl of your dreams, I count my chickens before they hatch, the numbers all match up it seems."
The smoky tones of Close, no cigar already sound like a supper club standard as Melody sighs, "Close, no cigar-- that’s what they say, better luck next time, you’re not just a bum, here have a cliché. Close doesn’t count, too close to call, it works for horseshoes and hand grenades, that’s about all."
At night you hear the trains’ lovely waltz bores into your memory banks on first listen, while Kilroy was here is a frantic rumination on graffiti’s place in the history of mankind-- "Someone, somewhere, shook a can and sprayed a wall. ‘Kilroy was here’, then he died and that was all. Someone Cro-Magnon tried to live beyond the grave. Kilroy was here, painting bison in his cave."
An unremarkable life is celebrated on Samba Ordinaire, which borrows the tango pulse of the pop classic Brazil and serves up a steaming percussive rumba worthy of Basia. Its swinging rhythms won’t fail to bring a quick smile to even the most cynical. With conga-line abandon, Melody chirps, "Good morning, world, hello, alarm. Where’s my several cups of coffee? How’s my tie, where’s my thermos? Start up the faithful Chevrolet on this ordinary day." Upon arrival home the narrator continues, "Good evening, sweetheart, what smells good? Scotch and soda and some TV. Can’t think of anything to say, it’s been an ordinary day."
But there’s nothing ordinary about the song.
The melancholy Maggie, with green eyes pines for a lost love with fragile delicacy. The heartbreaking Barbie and Ken chronicles the erosion of a fairytale romance. In the chamber-like piece for piano and voice, Melody remotely observes, "Barbie and Ken slowly drifted apart, winter comes after the fall. He’ll never know why she had to move on, storybooks seldom tell all. As time goes on he will sing in a music box waltz, frozen in amber this way. Writing it down so it never can end, this is the story...". Awash in weeping cellos and violins, Barbie and Ken is a striking new leaf on Melody’s tree and hints of a new maturity for the band.
The Weill/Brecht standard Alabama Song sputters along to staccato snares, strangled saxophone and Melody’s guttural growl achieving liftoff at song’s end. Raise those glasses high, indeed.
The best are saved for last. The pensive Gone in October, a poetic valentine to the memory of beat writer Jack Kerouac is transcendent in its reverence for lost artistry. Haunting piano strolls alongside Duncan’s sleepy sax as it sprinkles sandman’s dust on Melody’s elegiac dreamscape. He sings: "But down in St. Pete, there’s a phone that won’t be ringing, and a sad canvas Jesus looks down from the wall, on a tired blue-eyed angel in an uneasy chair, gone in October."
Closer Mr. Horizon brings us full circle to the giddy optimism that ushered us in. With a snake charmer’s skill, Melody lures the listener aboard a sailing vessel headed for sunnier shores. He ponders, "Mr. Horizon’s a hopeless has-been, if no one’s watching for ships to come in. Whenever somebody’s wishes come true, lonely horizons have nothing to do."
The album proves Melody to be a writer/performer of no small stature who has produced a body of work that could rank with any of America’s finest songwriters, and his band’s playing skills match him at every turn.
It’s a charmed life, indeed.