The Good: Funny. Flat out hilarious. Catchy, memorable tunes
The Bad: Specific allusions, Repetitive quality of the anthology
The Basics: A mammoth collection of all of musical comedian Tom Lehrer's works, The Remains Of Tom Lehrer is a mostly-timeless piece of comedic genius.
There is something beautifully simple about The Remains Of Tom Lehrer, a three-disc set that encapsulates the career of musical comedian and mathematician Tom Lehrer. The simple beauty comes from the fact that The Remains Of Tom Lehrer is everything. All of the music Tom Lehrer created and performed is here. You can hold the entire library of Tom Lehrer's works in your hand. You can listen to the entire collection in less than five hours. That's everything.
And it's staggeringly good. For an artist who only released five albums, this is a treasure trove for the enthusiast of Tom Lehrer, or the aficionado of musical comedy in general. The awesome aspect of The Remains Of Tom Lehrer is that the boxed set includes rarities, previously unissued recordings and a very comprehensive book on Tom Lehrer, his songs and his recordings. This is, at the end of the day, an incredible collection.
Have you not heard of Tom Lehrer? Or not heard anything by him? Let me tell you about him.
Tom Lehrer is, primarily, a mathematician. He recorded five albums (two studio, three live) between 1953 and 1965. He sat in front of his piano and sang satirical songs to tunes that were either recognizable or utterly generic. So, for example, "The Old Dope Peddler" uses a rather innocuous and understated lullaby theme to sing a ballad in tribute to the local drug dealer. It's brilliant. Similarly, "The Vatican Rag," a parody of the advertising jingles aimed at the Catholic Church, uses a unique tune that is almost completely sublimated by the lyrics. And it works.
Tom Lehrer's works are occasionally political, singing about government waste especially in the military ("The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be"), war and peace ("The MLF Lullaby") and poking fun at politicians of days of yore ("George Murphy"). My introduction to Mr. Lehrer's works come from the final disc in this collection, a previously released recording known as "That Was The Year That Was." That portion of his career was almost entirely political. Thus, it was a shock as I became more and more of a fan of his works, to learn that Tom Lehrer's songs were mostly social commentary or general satire.
Mr. Lehrer's views tend to be progressive, even today. In his songs, he derides the South for its racism ("I Wanna Go Back To Dixie"), criticizes Harvard ("Fight Fiercely Harvard"), plays upon the fear of The Bomb ("Who's Next?") and fights for higher health standards ("Pollution").
Other songs simply poke fun at the world as Tom Lehrer sees it. He mocks hunters and the way they shoot each other on "The Hunting Song," explores plagiarism on "Lobachevsky," and tears into the music industry in his take on "Clementine." He makes memorable unique works of pure humor with "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park" and "The Masochism Tango." In addition, Mr. Lehrer has a slew of mockeries of the typical love songs we hear all the time, like "When You Are Old and Gray," "I Hold Your Hand In Mine," and "She's My Girl."
His songs are snappy and funny and interesting and incredibly listenable. And his song "We Will All Go Together When We Go" is a rousing anthem that insidiously gets the listener to consider the realities of a nuclear holocaust.
It's not all depressing themes with hilarious lyrics set to snappy tunes, though. Many of the new recordings are educational. Mr. Lehrer has songs about letter combinations on the third disc, including "L-Y," "Silent E" and "O-U (The Hound Song)." And they are mostly decent (I'm not fond of "O-U" at all. They are otherwise clever and make learning fun, which I believe was the point of them.
Don't know if Tom Lehrer is for you? Understanding his sense of humor would seem to be the key to getting someone who has never heard him sing to buy the album. For that, I think one of his most accessible songs is "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park," which goes:
All the world seems in tune
On a spring afternoon
When we're poisoning pigeons in the park.
Ev'ry Sunday you'll see
My sweetheart and me,
As we poison the pigeons in the park.
When they see us coming, the birdies all try an' hide,
But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide.
He's a clever rhymer and despite how shocking and funny the songs are on their first listen, they hold up extraordinarily well over many listens. And that brings us to the only serious drawback of this collection. The listener is subjected to four of the songs ("Poisoning Pigeons In the Park," "The Masochism Tango," "The Hunting Song," and "We Will All Go Together When We Go") three times, once on each disc. Why? The first disc has the studio version, the second disc has the live version and the third disc has the full orchestral version of the four tracks. Outside two bonus tracks on the first disc, the tracks on disc one and two are identical in lyrical content. In fact, the second half of each of the first two discs (the pressings of "More of Tom Lehrer" and "An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer") is the same in that is has the same songs, in the same order. The difference is the second disc, with its live performances, has Mr. Lehrer doing his schtick between songs and that's quite funny.
But if one does not have a tolerance for minor variations or a low threshold for hearing the same lines over and over again, this collection is likely to tire one quickly. Of course, one could buy the set and just listen to discs one and three. . . .
This is an essential collection for anyone who likes brilliant musical comedy. Tom Lehrer is genius. In fact, while writing that, I recalled that there is one thing unique to disc two: Tom Lehrer introduces himself to his audience with a hilarious resume. That alone is worth popping that second disc in.
If you've never heard Tom Lehrer, this is an awesome way to get everything in one place. If you're more cautious, look up the Dr. Demento radio show. Call in and request Tom Lehrer (if it's still on the air). If it's not still on the air, there must be places on-line that one may legally listen to a couple of Lehrer's songs. That should be enough to convince anyone of his enduring greatness and the worthiness of purchasing this set.
Of course, if you buy this set, there's nothing more to buy of Tom Lehrer ever. That, too, might be reassuring to a savvy shopper. The best tracks are "We Will All Go Together When We Go" (disc 1), "Introduction" (disc 2) and "MLF Lullaby" (Disc 3, though honestly "N Apostrophe T" is growing rapidly on me!). The weakest tracks are "Lobachevsky" (discs 1 and 2) and "O-U (The Hound Song)."
For other comedy albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Harmful If Swallowed - Dane Cook
“Once More With Feeling” - Buffy The Vampire Slayer Cast
Monty Python Sings - Monty Python Cast
For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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