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.


Watch a live video of the Tiger Lillies performing “Teardrops” from “Either/Or”

Photo by Atelieri O.Haapala
Photo by Atelieri O.Haapala

Our favorite Brechtian punk cabaret trio, The Tiger Lillies, have been playing a bunch of dates in Europe and Asia this year, promoting their latest album Either/Or as well as their musical adaptation of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The video below is from a show they performed in Greece back in April, and we only have one thing to say about it: Come play Los Angeles, guys! We promise to post a rapturous review of the performance that never once calls Martyn “chubby.”

Sadly, we Americans will have to content ourselves with the U.S. premiere of Ancient Mariner in New York City on July 18th. And with obsessively watching this performance of “Teardrops,” a mournful piano ballad off Either/Or, over and over and over again. More bands really need to incorporate the musical saw.

New Tiger Lillies album “Either Or” is out now


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, 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.

Live video from Halloween of a new Tiger Lillies song: “Sailor”

Our favorite Brechtian punk cabaret trio The Tiger Lillies are currently on tour in some pretty far-flung places (they play Bucharest this week), but thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we can keep tabs on them just as easily as if they were playing down the street. On Halloween, for example, they played a gig at a recently opened venue in Moscow called Oldich Dress & Drink. Oldich is a vintage clothing shop by day and a bar with DJs and live music by night. Yes, this is in Moscow, not Brooklyn. Apparently there are Russian hipsters, too.

Some enterprising soul videotaped portions of Tiger Lillies’ Halloween set and among the things they captured was a performance of a brand-new song called “Sailor,” which the Lillies have confirmed (via Facebook) will appear on their next album, Either Or. No word yet on an Either Or release date. Early 2013, perhaps? We can only hope.

We’ve got the Tiger Lillies’ remaining far-flung tour dates (OK, Berlin isn’t that far-flung, but we’re ‘Mericans and don’t get out much) after the clip. This is a highly NSFW song, but then it’s the Tiger Lillies, so you already knew that, right?

12/11/2012 – Bar jeder Vernunft, Berlin, Germany
13/11/2012 – Bar jeder Vernunft, Berlin, Germany
15/11/2012 – Odeon Theatre , Bucharest , Romania (concert and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari production)
16/11/2012 – Kleinkunsttheater Crambolage , Bolzano, Italy
19/11/2012 – KOSMONAVT CLUB, St.Petersburg,, Russia
20/11/2012 – 16 Tons Club, Moscow, Russia
28/11/2012 – TREIBHAUS, Innsbruck, Austria
29/11/2012 – TREIBHAUS, Innsbruck, Austria
30/11/2012 – TREIBHAUS, Innsbruck, Austria
03/12/2012 – Rockhouse Salzburg, Salzburg, Austria
05/12/2012 – CINEMA PARADISO, St. Pölten, Austria
06/12/2012 – CONGRESS CENTER – VILLACH, Villach, Austria
07/12/2012 – Szene Wien, Vienna, Austria
08/12/2012 – Röda, Steyr, Austria
09/12/2012 – Landestheater Linz, Linz, Austria
11/12/2012 – Tvornica Kulture, Zagreb, Croatia
12/12/2012 – Kino Šiška Centre for Urban Culture, Ljubljana, Slovenia
13/12/2012 – Grabenhalle, St.Gallen, Switzerland
14/12/2012 – Moods, Zurich, Switzerland
15/12/2012 – Moods, Zurich, Switzerland

The Tiger Lillies

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

(Photo by Regis Hertrich)

This week’s weird band was suggested by a reader named Thomas, aka Dr. Benway, whose profile on 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.)