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.


Weird Album Review: Mission Man, “M””

It’s been about a month since Gary “Mission Man” Milholland sent us one of the 100 CD copies of his 11th (11th!) album, M”. Jake and I have been fighting ever since over who should review it—because honestly, neither of us wanted to do it. I mean, what are we supposed to do? Tell you it sucks? Tell you it’s the work of a misunderstood genius? Tell you it’s both those things?

Here’s the thing about Mission Man: His approach to hip-hop (and yes, it’s fair to call what he does hip-hop, even if bears little resemblance to the shit they play on mainstream rap radio) values self-expression over art. Or, maybe more accurately, the self-expression is the art. Mission Man sounds like no one else not because he sucks (which is what most people think when they first hear him), but because he’s just being who he is—and he’s a self-taught white rapper/musician from rural Ohio with no real interest in molding himself to the mainstream. “I don’t need validation from the masses,” he raps on album opener “Open Mic,” over a lurching, clattering beat that may as well as be telling the masses to go fuck themselves. (Except that The Mish never, ever swears—so maybe it’s just politely telling the masses this might not be their jam.) Plenty of rappers love to drop verses about the many obstacles they’ve had to overcome—but with Mission Man, those obstacles include his own inability or unwillingness to make palatable music.

They also include all the pitfalls that come from being a totally D.I.Y. musician with limited funds and an even more limited fan base. Even though most of Mission Man’s songs are beamingly positive on their surface (with titles like “I Can Feel the Love,” “Wonder Years,” “It’s Good to Be Back,” etc.), they’re all shot through with the pain and sadness of someone who’s suffered more than his fair share of rejection and loneliness. The love in “With Love We Find Hope” is the kind of love that saves you after you’ve been “punched in the face”; the idyllic childhood in “Wonder Years” is contrasted with an adulthood in which “we started to want too much.” and in which all Mission Man wants is to “live today like I’m a kid, OK?” But you get the sense that he doesn’t quite succeed.

Musically, it’s not all the tuneless noodling of a self-taught outsider. “I Can Feel the Love” adds a little dubstep whomp to the chorus; “Livin'” features wah-wah guitar and a full-on disco beat, although it does eventually dissolve into a chaotic mess of noisy piano runs. This is still a Mission Man album, after all.

The most striking song on the album is “Wonder Years,” in no small part because it’s a cappella: Stripped of his quirky instrumentation, and without a beat to follow, Mission Man’s lyrics get to stand on their own, and in places, they’re startlingly beautiful: “There were no sad truths to get in the way/There wasn’t hope, I didn’t need it/I already lived like I was dreaming.” If Mission Man’s palpable desire to return to that carefree childhood (real or imagined? who cares?) doesn’t tug at your heartstrings a little, your heart might be in need of a tuneup.

Mish ends the album with “Extra,” a song about how a casually offered compliment can turn around your whole day. “You look extra today,” goes the chorus. “Extra tall, extra smart, extra talented, extra sexy, extra amazing.” And in this live clip shot last month, extra smooth, if we do say so. Gary’s got some new dance moves!

You can pick up M” in Mission Man’s online store for just $10 for the CD or $5 for the download. Buy a copy and you’ll make him feel extra amazing. You might even feel kind of amazing yourself.

Weird Album Review, Christeene, “Waste Up Kneez Down”

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It’s another first here at Weird Band HQ: our first-ever album review. We’ve got Christeene’s Waste Up Kneez Down cued up and ready to go under the knife of our razor-sharp critical acumen. You ready, Christeene? More importantly, are we?

Remember about 10 years ago when “electroclash” was all the rage? We’re gonna describe Christeene’s sound as “electrotrash.” Her mix of filthy lyrics and throbbing dance grooves definitely owes a debt to electroclash’s more provocative artists, like Peaches and Princess Superstar, but she’s bringing her own Southern swag to the party. Also, she’s actually a dude in slutwave drag, which adds a layer of kink and gender confusion to her music that electroclash’s nasty girls couldn’t pull off so handily. (“Pull off so handily,” by the way, will only sound like a possible sexual double entendre to you if you haven’t heard this record. After you’ve heard it, it sounds like a line from Sesame Street.)

The album starts strong with a trio of down ‘n’ dirty dance tracks, of which “Fix My Dick” is the clear highlight—in part because it is, lyrically, the lowlight. “I’ll let you chew on my crabcakes, the hell with the first date, just slide me the beefsteak” is actually one of the least gross lines in the song. But “I need a woman gonna eat my dirty shame” might be the most telling. Christeene is an equal-opportunity hoe-bag who will tangle men and women alike in her cum-caked fishnets. But it’s the women who make her feel filthier.

We’re not big fans of the album’s next track, a lilting ballad called “Workin’ on Grandma,” in part because we still have no idea what the fuck it’s about. Is it literally about Christeene’s grandma? And why is she so desperate to convince grandma to stay? Is the rent tight? Is “workin’ on grandma” some kind of gay sex thing we’re unfamiliar with? Maybe Christeene will enlighten us one day.

“39 34 39,” an ode to Christeene’s (wo)manly curves, sounds like a cross between Prince’s “Dirty Mind” and DeBarge. No, seriously. Just imagine El DeBarge crooning “My pussy ain’t poppin’ for free” and you’ll see what we mean.

“Big Shot,” by contrast, comes on as cyber-sleek as Depeche Mode, until Christeene staggers into frame and starts wet-humping the Korg synthesizers. Violator? I hardly know her! (Yeah, we just made a Depeche Mode joke. How ya like us now?)

“Tropical Abortion” might be the most tasteless song on the album, which is saying a lot. That’s probably why Christeene and her main producers, JJ Booya and Powerhammer, dressed it up in a faux-Caribbean New Wave romp worthy of…well, maybe not Gloria Estefan. Billy Ocean?

After the throwaway “Oprah Angelz” comes “Bustin’ Brown,” a slow-grind Southern rap ode to “breakin’ laws in your behind.” Yes, it’s a sodomy jam for the ladies, complete with a critique of all us “straight motherfuckers” who don’t know how to do it right. (No comment, Christeene.) This is the part where she rhymes “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” with “You fuckin’ like you tryin’ to kill us.” Which might be our favorite part of the whole album. Until….

Sigh. How do we explain the awesomeness that is “Tears From My Pussy”? We can’t, so we’ll just let you hear it for yourself. This is right up there with Beck’s “Debra” in the annals of R&B parody songs that are better than 99% of actual R&B songs. It has a fucking children’s choir, for fuck’s sake! Singing about pussies! (Relax, they probably thought they were singing about cats. Also, our carefully trained critics’ ears tell us it may not be a real children’s choir.)

Musically, “African Mayonnaise” isn’t the strongest song on the album, but lyrically, it’s the closest the man behind Christeene, Paul Soileau, comes to spelling out Christeene’s agenda. “I am your new celebrity,” goes the song’s refrain, “I am your new America/I am the piece of filthy meat y’all take home and treat to yourself.” And later: “Come take a piece of me and burn it in your back room.” It’s his/her sneaky way of reminding us that, as foul as Christeene’s sleazeball anthems can get, all she’s really doing is reflecting our increasingly depraved, hypocrisy-ridden culture back at us. Or maybe we’re reading too much into it and she’s just channeling America’s endless parade of talentless fame whores.

Waste Up Kneez Down ends with a surprisingly solemn (by Christeene’s standards, anyway) piano ballad, then a live version of “Tears From My Pussy” featuring what sounds like the world’s most under-rehearsed chamber orchestra. At first, it sounds like a full-blown train wreck, but stay with it until about the 4:30 mark, when a few violins finally find the right key and the whole thing slowly, miraculously, transforms into something kinda beautiful. Sorta like Christeene herself. (See how we did that?)

So, to sum up: If you like your electro-party jams with a queer eye for the pig sty, buy this fucking album. And no, we have no idea what the last sentence means, either, but buy it anyway! Your friends will be amazed, appalled and ultimately delighted when you throw this shit on at your next wine and cheese night.

Photo by Shot in the City. Swiped from CultureMap Austin.