Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Way To Make Your Old Albums Into C.D.s; Tom Lehrer Combines Two Well With Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer!

The Good: Funny, Clever, Catchy tunes
The Bad: Musically limited, Some dated references
The Basics: Tom Lehrer creates timeless humor on a decent c.d. worth anyone's time, attention and money . . . and it holds up! (Which is what makes it timeless.)

There are any number of classic albums that were originally released on record that I have reviewed lately that I have had the reasonable beef that their transfer to compact disc makes for a poor use of the medium. So, for example, the Creedence Clearwater Revival album Willy And The Poor Boys is under forty minutes of music, wasting a great deal of space that is available on the c.d. In those cases, I tend to advocate that the artist combine multiple albums in order to make better use of the newer digital medium. Ironically enough, comedian Tom Lehrer appears to have heard (more realistically, anticipated) my complaint when he combined his 1953 album Songs By Tom Lehrer and his 1959 album More Of Tom Lehrer for the 1997 disc Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer.

Now, the only way Tom Lehrer wastes the medium is with his music.

That's a joke; for those who are unfamiliar with the works of Tom Lehrer, he is a mathematician turned musical comedian whose heyday was the 50s and mid-1960s. Yet, still we listen to his music and buy his compact discs, which kindly have a bonus track that was not included in the original release of either of the albums (track #24, "I Got It From Agnes").

With 24 tracks, clocking in at just over fifty minutes Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer is very much the brainchild of Tom Lehrer. All twenty-four songs were written, sung and produced by Tom Lehrer. As a result, he is forced to take all of the credit and all of the blame for the album's content.

The truth is, it is almost inarguably credit that he ought to be taking. After all, how many times has Madonna had to reinvent herself in her (almost) thirty year career just to sell albums? Tom Lehrer produced the bulk of his works almost fifty years ago and there is still a market for his unaltered works!

The reason for this is that Lehrer created humor that holds up over the generations. On television shows like Gilmore Girls - and in high schools around the nation today - Tom Lehrer's songs are sung . . . well, at least one. I refer to "The Elements," a simple tune wherein Tom Lehrer simply sings the names of the elements on the Periodic Table Of Elements, as it appeared in 1959. It might not be the funniest work on the album, but it might well be the best known and most educational.

The thing is, largely these works are funny and in his earliest works, Tom Lehrer created songs that were largely universal and timeless. So, for example, in expressing his distaste of hunting, he sings, ". . . I took down my trusty rifle / And went out to stalk my prey. / What a haul I made that day! / I tied them to my fender, and I drove them home somehow, / Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow. / The law was very firm, it / Took away my permit . . . [because] Cows were out of season" ("The Hunting Song"). It is a funny little song that Lehrer uses to satirize the lack of respect humans have for virtually all life and it is both humorous and poignant.

Lehrer has a wide range of subjects - or targets, depending on the perspective. He ranges from the academic in singing about literature and science ("The Elements," "Oedipus Rex") to the state of the United States ("The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be," "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie") to general absurd and humorous situations ("I Hold Your Hand In Mine," "Bright College Days"). There is surprisingly little that seems dated on this album, most notably the song "A Christmas Carol." After all, it is somewhat passe to rail against the commercialism of Christmas these days, yet Lehrer does it and one supposes it was groundbreaking at the time. Similarly, the railing against bullfighting on "In Old Mexico" might seem overkill after "The Hunting Song," though rage against bullfighting is not so prevalent in song as it is in debate class.

As a liberal American, there is much to appreciate about "Songs And More Songs By Tom Lehrer." More conservative elements will need a thick skin in order to appreciate the genius of Tom Lehrer, especially with some of his more controversial songs. Generally, language is not a problem (he does use the term "wet back" on "In Old Mexico," but it seems more dated than anything driven by hate or prejudice), but conceptually, it is probable Southerners will either not like or will need a sense of humor about "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie." Then again, I think it's hilarious with its darkly satirical lines "Ol' times there are not forgotten, / Whuppin' slaves and sellin' cotton . . . I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen / And put my white sheet on again, / I ain't seen one good lynchin' in years. / The land of the boll weevil, / Where the laws are medieval, / Is callin' me to come and nevermore roam" ("I Wanna Go Back To Dixie"). Tom Lehrer unflinchingly calls it as he sees it.

The thing is, he does it with style, articulation and stunningly perfect grammar, something that distinguishes it well from most comedy today. Tom Lehrer is the liberal elitist educated snob that everyone hates for his perspective (strangely the uneducated despise the people in education for being educated). Lehrer pokes fun at academia and the culture of it, though, with songs like "Fight Fiercely Harvard" and "Bright College Days."

Perhaps the reason so many people know Tom Lehrer - outside "The Elements" popping up in other mediums now - is his quirky love (?) song "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park." As the name suggests, this is a simple song that expresses the virtues of murdering small animals. Lehrer wrote and sings "Ev'ry Sunday you'll see / My sweetheart and me, / As we poising 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" ("Poisoning Pigeons In The Park"). It is funny when taken as humor and it holds up well even today.

Perhaps the reason Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer is still on the market - in addition to the universal songs like the twisted anti-love song "When You Are Old And Gray" - is that there is a cyclical nature to history and we are entering a time when we have much to fear that we feared in the 1950s. Songs like the antinuclear "We Will All Go Together When We Go" could be played every time a news program shows a clip of Iran (it's not like news isn't entertainment here already!). Then again, it could just be people like songs with sexual innuendo, like "The Masochism Tango" and the new track on STDs, "I Got It From Agnes."

Vocally, Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer is surprisingly good. Lehrer is clearly musically educated - as evidenced by "Clementine" - and he sings his lyrics with brilliant clarity. He has a wonderful tenor voice and he more or less keeps to that range and it works for him.

Instrumentally, this is Tom Lehrer and his piano. He does, however, play the songs with remarkable stylistic diversity. As a result, he varies from a pretty standard comedic show tune style ("We Will All Go Together When We Go," "Lobachevsky") to waltzes ("The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz") and tangos ("The Masochism Tango"). And "Clementine" is a whole lesson in musical stylings!

For a humor album, this holds up remarkably well and it has a timeless quality that some other humor albums do not have, making it worthwhile. As a fan of Tom Lehrer's works, I would be remiss in simply recommending this disc when there is the definitive boxed set of Lehrer's works. That is The Remains Of Tom Lehrer - reviewed here! - and it includes these albums as well as the rest of his works in one place, making for a better overall deal! Indeed, because that boxed set is such a phenomenal deal and includes this album (and more), while I recommend Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer, I penalized this album on the star rating because there is that superior compilation.

The best track is "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie" and the low point is "Lobachevsky," which doesn't hold up as well over the hundreds of listens I've done.

For other humor albums, please visit my reviews of:
Monty Python Sings
Family Guy Live From Las Vegas
Harmful If Swallowed - Dane Cook


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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