Monday, July 23, 2018

Ralph Carney and Chris Butler's "Songs for Unsung Holidays"

Reviewing Ralph Carney's last album back in 2011, I compared it to "a midwestern Bonzo Dog Band with chops," and indeed Carney -- a titanic multi-instrumentalist and go-to sideman for the likes of Tom Waits, the B-52s, St. Vincent, and his nephew Patrick Carney's band the Black Keys -- came across for all the world like the Bonzos' art school eccentric Roger Ruskin-Spear in a jazz classicist mood. It's fitting, then, that before he died unexpectedly last December, Carney collaborated with his ex-Tin Huey/Waitresses bandmate Chris Butler on this gem of absurdist musical humor, inspired by the likes of the Bonzos, Tom Lehrer, and Randy Newman.

Besides being a fave of your humble chronicler o' events, Butler is the composer of the seasonal perennial "Christmas Wrapping," but Songs for Unsung Holidays -- scheduled for a September 7 release on estimable indie Smog Veil -- is a collection of songs about off-the-wall invented holidays, co-written and recorded by the long-distance collaborators in their respective home studios. In this moment when every day brings social media reminders of holidays for every damn thing under the sun (in between the Russian bot memes and news reports of the latest outrages from the obfuscator in chief), it's apropos to have songs to sing on "Introduce A Girl To Engineering Day," "Bubble Wrap Day," and "Salami Appreciation Day."

"Bald and Free" is both a piss-take on the white guy blues (albeit one with sterling harp and guitar from Carney and Butler) and a wiseass rumination on the, um, lengths some gents will go to, to conceal their male pattern baldness (even in a time when the shaven head is fashionable), while "Cheese Ball Day" is a sonic homage to the era when secret prog rockers Tin Huey attempted to sneak under the radar in new wave clothing. The aforementioned "Engineering Day" conflates robotic synths and vocals with What's Going On sax obbligatos and Butler's earnest-but-unromantic ruminations on engineering careers before the two Ohio natives pay tribute to their roots on "Polka Day."

"Gorilla Suit Day" is an old-timey romp, sung by Carney, that puts me in mind of so many things: Leon Redbone, the Evans Vacuum Cleaner guy (Fort Worth-centric reference), the "shake hands with Gonga" scene in Wise Blood; "Put on the suit" indeed. "Day of the Dead" -- the only legit holiday in the bunch celebrated here -- returns to the concern with mortality that permeated Butler's Got It Togehter! from earlier this year. "Bath Safety Day" is a sequel to Chicago's "An Hour in the Shower" that winds up being a case of mistaken holiday identity (who knew Bath, Maine, had a safety day?). Most poignant moment here comes on "Hippie Day," when Carney and Butler's Dead-'n'-Allman (not to mention Marshall Tucker)-inspahrd jamarama gives way to a good old fashioned protest march call-and-response and themes Butler explored in his coming-of-age-at-Kent State 1970 remembrance Easy Life.

Carney was a one-of-a-kind muso who'll be sorely missed. This record is a nice memorial to his joyful spirit. (Another ex-Huey, Harvey Gold, was about to undertake a collaboration with Carney before he passed; the result is here).


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