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Weird Album Review: The Tiger Lillies, “A Dream Turns Sour”

Tiger Lillies, A Dream Turns Sour

Most bands, after 34 albums, probably wouldn’t have many new tricks up their sleeves. But the Tiger Lillies manage to keep breaking new ground. Their 35th album, A Dream Turns Sour, is their first album based on real-life events, and their first for which Martyn Jacques did not write his own lyrics. Instead, all 15 of A Dream Turns Sour‘s songs are musical adaptations of World War I poetry, all written by British, American and Canadian poets who died on the battlefield. As such, it’s one of the darkest things the Tiger Lillies have ever recorded—which, given Jacques’ long fascination with death and cruelty, is saying something.

The album picks a logical starting point with Scottish infantry Captain Charles Hamilton Sorley’s poem titled simply “Death,” which mordantly addresses the grim reaper directly: “Saints have adored the lofty soul of you/Poets have whitened at your high renown.” Jacques and his bandmates—bassist Adrian Stout, drummer Mike Pickering and guest bouzouki/banjo player Paul-Ronnie Angel—deliver Sorley’s dark paean in typical Tiger Lillies fashion, with lots of sprightly accordion and upright bass and Jacques’ trademark falsetto, suggesting that despite its grim subject matter, A Dream Turns Sour might be another entry in the Lillies’ long catalog of albums that give the bleakest source material a humorous twist.

But “Death,” it turns out, is a bit of a red herring. Most of A Dream Turns Sour hews closer to the hushed, mournful tones of its treatment of a second Sorley poem, “The Mouthless Dead.” Here, Jacques drops his falsetto to intone Sorley’s fatalistic verses over solemn piano and bowed bass: “Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat/Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean.” It’s powerful stuff, and signals that most of A Dream Turns Sour will adopt a tone more in keeping with All Quiet on the Western Front than Blackadder Goes Forth.

The bulk of A Dream Turns Sour is devoted to less famous poets of the Great War; since Jacques decided to limit his source material to writers who did not survive the trenches, there’s no room here for Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves. He also steers clear of more sentimental poets like Rupert Brooke, whose “The Soldier” was one of the most popular war poems of its time thanks to lofty and oft-quoted lines like, “If I should die, think only this of me/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England.” The closest A Dream Turns Sour comes to such romanticized notions of war and death is Canadian poet John McRae’s famous “Flanders Field”—though even over an accordion-led waltz that conjures images of cozy French wine bars, Jacques’ high-pitched rasp finds a hint of menace in the poem’s familiar verses, which are spoken by the dead: “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep.”

Among the many near-forgotten gems of World War I poetry unearthed elsewhere on A Dream Turns Sour: Noel Hodgson’s “Before Action,” a hollow prayer for an honorable death (“Help me to die, O Lord”), here renamed “Help Me” and recast as a stately hymn for acoustic guitar and muted yet martial drums; Leslie Coulson’s florid but heartbreaking “One Little Hour,” delivered by Jacques with utmost restraint, over just a simple piano figure; Arthur Graeme West’s shockingly nihilistic “God, How I Hate You,” which gives Jacques a rare opportunity to ham it up a bit, ranting, “I hate you! And you! And especially you!” over the bitter wheeze of his accordion; and Isaac Rosenberg’s stunningly bleak, gruesome “Dead Man’s Dump,” which Jacques intones simply, accompanied by the ghostly tones of Stout’s musical saw: “The wheels lurched over the sprawled dead/But pained them not, though their bones crunched.”

For the most part, Jacques and his bandmates approach their source material with a degree of reverence unusual for them. The only time they really seem to be winking a bit is on their sprightly rendition of American poet Alan Seeger’s “Rendezvous With Death,” an admittedly overwrought bit of Yankee death-wish bravado that was apparently a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s. It’s the one time on the album that Jacques shuffles the order of the original verses and even inserts a few of his own, throwing in an added bit of doggerel (“So come on, Death, and take my hand/And lead me to your darkened land/And close my eyes and steal my breath”) that leads him to a fit of hammy hyperventilating. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a much-needed moment of levity, or the album’s only real false note.

A Dream Turns Sour saves its greatest source for last: the justly revered English poet, Wilfred Owen, whose verses adorn the album’s final four tracks. It’s thrilling to hear the Tiger Lillies breathe new life into the familiar yet still devastating verses of Owen’s most famous work, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which they unexpectedly turn into a pretty piano meditation. But it’s even more exciting to hear them revive lesser-known masterpieces like “Mud” (which begins with the arresting lines, “I, too, saw God through mud/The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled”) and “Three Parts,” movingly told from the viewpoint of a crippled veteran in a hospital bed (“I’m blind, and three parts shell…Both arms have mutinied against me—brutes”). Though there are many moments of fine poetry throughout A Dream Turns Sour, the arrival of Owen’s verses pretty much blows away everything that’s come before it.

Taken altogether, A Dream Turns Sour may not be the Tiger Lillies’ most entertaining album. Its subject matter is too relentlessly grim; its arrangements, for the most part, too restrained. But if you trust Martyn Jacques and his bandmates to take you on a journey into one of the darkest chapters of history, A Dream Turns Sour is a moving and occasionally shocking portrayal of the effects war has on men’s bodies and souls. It’s certainly a much better introduction to World War I poetry than some dry literature class. And on the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (literally—the album was released on June 28th, one hundred years to the day after the assassination), it’s a grim reminder of just how brutal and horrific those wars in our history books really were.

A Dream Turns Sour is available now from the Tiger Lillies’ online store.

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And now, an Easter song from Miss Von Trapp

If you’re not godless heathens like Jake and me, you’re probably celebrating the Resurrection of Our Lord & Savior this weekend by painting some hard-boiled eggs and biting the heads off chocolate rabbits. But even if you don’t celebrate Easter, you’re sure to enjoy Miss Von Trapp‘s new ode to the season, “Taxidermy Chocolate Bunny (Oh dear what can the matter be).” In fact, the less you give a shit about Easter, the more likely you are to enjoy it. Unless you hate ukuleles. Then you’re screwed.

Miss Von T. also has quite a few shows coming up this summer. If you live in England and anything steampunk-related is happening near you, chances are she’ll be there. Do check her out, won’t you?

23-26 May – Plymouth – Volksfest Cabaret Tent 2014
14 June – Devon – The Carnivale of the Peculiar
20-22 June – Bristol – Brass Brunel Steampunk Convention
25 June – Plymouth – Pennycomequick Arts present ‘Black Books’
5 July – St. Austell – Steampunk Ball, The Market House
14-18 Aug. – Kettering – Alt-Fest: The Steampunk Experience (hosted by our friends BB Blackdog)
27 Sept. – Exeter – Steampunk Cabaret with Professor Elemental, The Tobacco House
11 Oct. – Exeter – Rogues Gallery: A Neo-Vaudeville Night of Delights

For more info and tickets, visit Miss Von Trapp’s official site.

Tiger Lillies debut new show and album today: “Lulu – A Murder Ballad”

tigerlillies-lulu

When the Tiger Lillies take the stage tonight at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, England, I really hope lead singer Martyn Jacques begins the show by declaring, “This is a play Lou Reed and Metallica stole from Frank Wedekind—we’re here to steal it back!”

Yes, the Tiger Lillies’ latest opus, a 19-song suite called Lulu – A Murder Ballad, is based on the same source material as the ill-fated “Loutallica” collaboration Lulu from a few years back. Both draw their inspiration from a pair of pitch-black plays by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, about a dancer-turned-prostitute named Lulu who endures a series of abusive sexual relationships in turn-of-the-century Berlin, Paris and London on her way to an untimely demise. With all due respect to the late, legendary Lou Reed—truly one of the greatest artists ever to wield a black leather jacket and an electric guitar—I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Tiger Lillies’ version will be the better of the two. At the very least, it will almost certainly not feature any songs in which Jacques declares himself to be a table.

The Lillies have already been performing Lulu – A Murder Ballad elsewhere around Europe, but tonight marks the show’s premiere performance in their native Blighty. It also marks the first release of the show in album form.

For now, the only places you’ll be able to see Lulu are Leeds, Coventry and Manchester—for full dates, visit the Tiger Lillies’ website. But Martyn and the boys tour more or less non-stop, so I’m sure they’ll be mounting further presentations of it (complete with visuals by Mark Holthusen) elsewhere around the demimonde in the months ahead.

We’ll leave you with the first official video from from Lulu: “Jack,” an eerie meditation on the mind of Jack the Ripper. Not only was Jack a character in Pandora’s Box, the second of the two Lulu plays; he was played in the original production by the playwright Wedekind himself. No wonder the Tiger Lillies were drawn to this guy’s work.

Bless us, one and all! Miss Von Trapp has a visit from Professor Elemental.

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There’s nothing that makes our hearts and various other organs swell with greater pride than the sight of two entrants on our esteemed Weird List making beautiful music together. So when murderously dark cabaret cellist Miss Von Trapp shared with us this video of her and chap-hop luminary Professor Elemental giving the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” a good jolly rogering, our hearts were swollen fair to bursting. The less said about what it did to our other organs, the better.

New Tiger Lillies album “Either Or” is out now

TigerLillies-EitherOr

So it appears that while we were mucking about with Facebook polls and Valentine’s Day playlists, the Tiger Lillies released their new album. It’s called Either Or and it’s available now in good old-fashioned CD form on the band’s website. You can preview snippets of all 16 tracks on Last.fm, but it appears the only way to hear the whole thing is to buy it. What a novel concept!

The Lillies describe it as one of their weirdest-sounding albums, and based on what we’ve heard so far, we can’t argue. It’s loosely based on the writings of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, specifically a portion of his 1834 work Either/Or called “The Seducer’s Diary,” which sets forth the notion that pleasure-seeking is the noblest pursuit and “all evil deeds are justified as long as they give meaning to people’s existence.” (Jake will be thrilled to hear this, since it’s pretty much how he’s lived his whole life anyway.) On many of the songs, Martyn Jacques seems to be using less of his trademark falsetto, and guest multi-instrumentalist David Coulter provides some new sounds and textures by playing everything from banjo, ukulele and violin to nose flute, jew’s saw, weeping saws, maracas, omnichord and clackamore. (We’d never heard of that last one, either; apparently it’s a kind of jew’s harp.) The album is also the first to feature new drummer Mike Pickering.

In support of Either Or, the Tiger Lillies have put together something new and different (would you expect anything less?): the “Either/Or Cabaret,” set in 1937 Shanghai, which was nicknamed “Sin City” because of its decadent nightclubs. The cabaret features not just the Lillies themselves but 10 Danish and Chinese actors playing various chanteuses, dancers and nightclub patrons. Unfortunately, as of now, the only place you can see the show is in, well, Shanghai—where it’s running now through March 3rd at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre. After that, the Lillies have a few upcoming performances in France, Britain, Germany and Istanbul, which you can learn more about here. No further dates for the Either/Or Cabaret have been announced, but something tells us we haven’t seen the last of it.

Till then, we’ll tide you over with this Either/Or Cabaret promo video. Looks pretty decadent, all right.

Miss Von Trapp

MissVonT5

Well, after a humdinger of a Facebook poll, we are ready to crown our first Weird Band of the Week of 2013. Or maybe we’ll crown the severed head that accompanies her at most of her shows. Apparently the head is named Anne Boleyn, so that seems more appropriate.

Miss Von Trapp is the stage persona of one Lizzi Fugeman. She hails from England, plays the cello and sings Goth-Victorian folks songs about children being poisoned by eels and the inner musings of Jack the Ripper and other such cheery subjects. She also wears stripey stockings and creepy doll makeup. She calls her music “Murderously Quirky Dark Cello Cabaret” and “performance poetry to revolt and entertain.” She’s kind of Rasputina meets the Tiger Lillies meets the room this old spinster named Priscilla kept full of creaky antique toys on the street where I grew up. If that room had had a soundtrack, I bet it would’ve sounded exactly like Miss Von Trapp. Come to think of it, what the hell was I ever doing in that room? My parents did not inculcate me with a proper sense of Stranger Danger. If I were the subject of a Miss Von Trapp song, I surely would have met an untimely end.

Miss Von Trapp has a new album called Songs to Die For coming out later this year, which you’ll no doubt be able to read all about here, as soon as we can wheedle a copy out of her. Meantime, here she is performing a pair of original songs, “Tragic Moments” and “Roses Are Red,” at something called the Dolly Delights Burlesque Peep Show and Cabaret. Oh, those saucy Brits and their salacious peep shows, featuring buxom cello players in doll makeup and granny glasses. Be still my boiling tea bags!

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P.S. We’re still recuperating from our latest Facebook poll, but we’ll have a new one soon. Promise.

The Tiger Lillies

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(Photo by Regis Hertrich)

This week’s weird band was suggested by a reader named Thomas, aka Dr. Benway, whose profile on deviantART.com is really cool but also makes us hope we never run into him in a dark alley. Fortunately, he lives in South Africa, so we’re probably safe.

Thomas recommended that we check out the Tiger Lillies, a London trio who have been doing the whole Brechtian punk cabaret thing since before the Dresden Dolls were even a gleam in Amanda Palmer’s heavily mascara’d eye. Truly, these guys are pioneers, and they don’t really get the credit they deserve, probably because they’re morbid and British and the lead singer is a chubby guy in whiteface who plays the accordion and sings in a castrati-style falsetto. They’re too scary for the old-timey/hot jazz crowd and not sexy and/or edgy enough for the goth/steampunk crowd. But they’re kinda cooler than either of those scenes, and at least twice as original.

The Tiger Lillies were founded in 1989 by Martyn Jacques, a classically trained self-taught opera singer and accordion player who, according to his official bio, lived above a brothel in London’s Soho district. Jacques joined forces with percussionist Adrian Huge and, eventually, bassist/Theremin/musical saw player Adrian Stout, who came on board in 1995. Together they developed a style of music that mixed jazz, punk, English music hall, gypsy folk, French chanson, show tunes, Threepenny Opera and Tom Waits-ish musical primitivism, all held together by a jet-black sensibility (most of their songs are about criminals, pimps, prostitutes, drugs, murder, suicide, and children meeting untimely ends; they’ve done an entire album inspired by Edward Gorey stories, if that gives you an idea) and Jacques’ squeezed-nads falsetto, which one reviewer described as sounding “as though a dove has flown out of his throat. A mangled, bloody dove but still.”

The Tiger Lillies are ridiculously prolific, having recorded more than 30 albums during their 20-odd-year career. But they’re probably best-known for their musical, Shockheaded Peter, which won a pair of Olivier Awards when it ran on London’s West End (England’s version of Broadway) in 2002. Based on a series of gruesome children’s stories written by a German lunatic asylum doctor in the 1840’s, the songs are all equal parts horrifying and hilarious, with lots of lyrics about what happens to “naughty romping girls and boys/Who tear their clothes and make a noise.” (No, they don’t just get sent to the naughty step. Mostly, they meet untimely ends.)

Live, the Lillies seem like some kind of strange Victorian carnival act come to life, with Jacques done up in grotesque clown paint and all three dressed like 19th century gangsters. Decent live clips of them on YouTube are frustratingly hard to come by, but here’s a TV show perfomance of “Bully Boys,” one of the songs from Shockheaded Peter, that gives you a pretty good idea of what they’re ab0ut. Klaus Nomi meets Tom Waits meets Jacques Brel? Something like that.

(P.S. The Lillies’ latest project premieres in Paris next month: a stage adaptation of Coleridge’s epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We’ll post a full report on the show after it opens; in the meantime, you can get updates on “ROAM” by visiting the blog of its visual artist, Mark Holthusen.)

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Dirty Sanchez

(Photo by Austin Young)

Today’s band was suggested by a reader called Hola-Ebola…and no, they have nothing to do with the Jackass-like British TV series Dirty Sanchez, although those guys are pretty great. This Dirty Sanchez is an electroclash band from Los Angeles. What is electroclash, you ask? Well, I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell, it seems to be an intentionally cheesy/campy style of dance music with lots of songs about cocaine and gay sex and Hollywood. I think Lady Gaga probably ripped off half her act from the electroclash scene.

Anyways, there are loads of weird electroclash acts out there, like Fischerspooner, Peaches, Chicks on Speed and Princess Superstar. But Dirty Sanchez stand out for a couple reasons. First, many of their songs are just flat-out, hilariously bizarre, as you can tell from just the song titles alone: “Fucking on the Dancefloor,” “Really Rich Italian Satanists,” “Tranny Sex,” “We Hate Youth and Beauty.” Second, they seem to be one of the few (only?) electroclash bands to feature a full-on tranvestite as one of their lead singers. His/her name is Jackie Beat and even though I feel kinda gay for saying this, she rules. In their early videos, she’s like a cross between Dee Snider and Cher. Now she looks more like a cross between Eddie Izzard and that fat chick from The Gossip, but she’s still pretty fabulous. (Did I just use the word “fabulous” to describe a drag queen? Wow, now I really feel gay.)

Dirty Sanchez seem to have been inactive since 2008–that’s the last time their website news was updated (back then, they said they were working on a new album, their second one, but it doesn’t seem like it’s ever come out) and also the year they released a new single, “Give Head and Be Beautiful.” Here’s the video for it, which for our money is the most awesomely weird thing they’ve ever done. Next time I go out dancing, I’m totally gonna picture everyone with their heads off.

(Update: It seems like Jackie Beat is now based in New York and might be more focused on her cabaret act and her solo career–although it also seems like she forgot to pay her domain name bill, so it’s hard for us to confirm this. Still, this parody video posted in late 2009 does feature fellow Dirty Sanchezian Mario Diaz, so there’s still hope we may hear more from Dirty Sanchez yet.)

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Super Geek League

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(Photo by Geoffrey Gribbin: www.bipolarimages.com)

Well, this is kinda fun. Super Geek League calls their music “soul metal” and their stage show a “sci fi punk circus” complete with dancing girls, crazy outfits, gnomes, strippers dressed up like Hindu goddesses, confetti cannons, pillow fight mosh pits (don’t ask me, I’m just quoting from their press kit), and occasionally things like Twinkies and dead fish getting tossed at the audience. In fact, they nearly got kicked off the Warped Tour because of the cleanup required after a typical SGL set. And if you’re extreme enough to piss off the Warped Tour people, you must be doing something right.

We haven’t been able to find out much else about these guys, except that they’re from Seattle, they have an album coming out later this month (called, as coincidence would have it, Soul Metal) and their ringleader calls himself Floyd McFeely. There’s more about the band in this article, but frankly the writing was so bad it made my head hurt. We’ll give the writer the benefit of the doubt though—after trying to interview these guys, I might lose my ability to form sentences, too.

Wait, this is a first: As I was writing this, Floyd McFeely emailed me. Dude’s psychic. Either that or he just noticed that we started following him on Twitter. Either way, coincidink.

He writes: “We have already been named “Best Masked Bands” so mine [sic] as well be one of the WEIRDEST bands.” Amen, brother.

Floyd also forwarded us a copy of the band’s official press kit, which is a good thing because we were really have a hard time describing these guys. But here you go, chew on this, from the Erotic Exotic Ball: “If System of a Down, Primus and Insane Clown Posse gangbanged Macy Gray, Super Geek League would undoubtedly be their spunky demon offspring.” Yeah that about sums it up.

But hey, you haven’t even been paying attention since I mentioned something about strippers dressed up like Hindu goddesses, have you? Well, get ready to burn in whatever the Hindu equivalent of Hell is, because you’re about to see what I mean.

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The Wet Spots

We were turned on (no pun intended) to today’s weird band by my friend Julia, who knows people in that whole polyamory community—you know, the people we used to called “swingers,” before they decided to develop a whole code of ethics and openness and mutual consent and take all the fun out of sleeping around. (I kid, I kid! Polyamory rocks, if that’s your thing. I can barely handle one intimate relationship at a time, but that’s just me.) Anyway, apparently this duo called The Wet Spots is pretty popular with the poly crowd—as well they should be. I mean, being kinky has always sounded like fun—but rarely has it sounded this totally adorable and non-threatening, too.

The Wet Spots are a husband and wife duo from Vancouver—yes, they’re Canadian, which makes sense given that Canada is easily the most adorable and non-threatening nation in the Western Hemisphere. Before they were the Wet Spots, Cass King was a sex columnist, and John Woods played in punk bands. Now they present themselves as sort of a hotel lounge act that does breezy, jazzy songs about anal sex, fisting, foot fetishes, polyamory and pretty much anything else you can think of that any combination of healthy, open-minded folks might do to get each other off. It’s like Cole Porter meets Penthouse Forum, except the girls get to come more. And the Cole Porter stand-in isn’t wearing any pants.

To get a sense a better sense of The Wet Spots’ unique mix of naughty and nice, there’s a clip of them doing a show at Burning Man in 2008 that’s pretty fun. (You’ll know they’re really at Burning Man about 25 seconds in, when a dude in Mad Max drag walks through the frame looking for a seat.) But to really hear them at their most outrageous, we just had to present the official video for their most famous song, “Do You Take It?” Totally NSFW…and totally adorable. Oh, Canada.

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