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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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.

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

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.

Weirdify Playlist 13: My Freaky Valentine

MyFreakyValentine

Let’s face it: Most love songs suck. If you’re like me, you can’t fire up the Whitney Houston come Valentine’s Day for fear of your lady love punching you in the face (and rightly so, I might add). So what’s a misfit in love to do? Don’t worry, TWBITW is here to help.

These 19 unconventional love songs will help you get your freak on with that special someone—of, if you don’t have a special someone, they’ll make you feel great about being single. Yes, they can do both. They’re just that fucking good.

So fire up your Spotify player, or use the nifty embedded player below, and let’s start the seduction.

Some notes on your listening experience:

1. Leslie Hall, “Power Cuddle.” Our current Weirdo of the Week starts us off with a little heavy petting. Spoiler alert: “Take me to Miami, we can hold handies” is the best lyric in this entire playlist. It’s all downhill from here.

2. Dirty Sanchez, “Give Head & Be Beautiful.” Now that we’ve got the cuddling out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.

3. Gonken, “Robot Lovin’.” OK, slow jam time. This one goes out to everyone whose significant other is one screw short.

4. Goldie Lookin’ Chain, “You Knows I Loves You.” Wales’ greatest (only?) hip-hop crew puts on the moves. Eat your heart out, R. Kelly.

5. Die Antwoord, “U Make a Ninja Wanna Fuck.” Believe it or not, this is actually the South African rap-ravers’ romantic side. They even quote Tiffany!

6. Here Come the Mummies, “Bed, Bath & Behind.” In which a bunch of funky mummies do the nasty all over your nice furniture. Don’t think about the cleaning bills, just go with it.

7. Baby Seal Club, “Silly Human Sentiment.” If you’re incapable of expressing love without feeling like an idiot, this is the song for you. Also, you might need therapy. Just sayin’.

8. DEVO, “The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise.” We’re not really sure what’s wrong with Mark Mothersbaugh’s baby, but it doesn’t sound good. But his devotion sounds undying, which makes this about as close to a pure boy/girl love song as DEVO’s ever likely to write.

9. Barnes and Barnes, “Girl of My Dreams.” The “worried young man” of this song might a stalker, but at least he’s a romantic stalker.

10. The Emotron, “Love Song.” Boy meets cigarettes. Boy loses cigarettes. Boy loses his shit. It’s a love story for the ages.

11. Sparks, “Perfume.” If your girlfriend asks why you didn’t get her any perfume for Valentine’s Day, just play her this song instead. Unless you don’t want to spend your life with her. Then things might get awkward.

12. Nous Non Plus, “Acte Manqué/Freudian Slip.” We have no idea what this song is about, but a boy and a girl singing to each other in French always sounds romantic.

13. The Wet Spots, “Labia Limbo.” We got away from songs about sex for awhile there, didn’t we? Unless that French song is all about fucking like bunnies. Anyway, Canada’s favorite kinky lounge act leaves no doubt what we’re talking about.

14. GWAR, “Sexecutioner.” You know what else this playlist needs? Some whip-crack and barnyard animal sound effects. Also, some metal. And genital wart and golden shower references in a ridiculously bad fake European accent. Now we’re ready for sexytime.

15. Anti-Nowhere League, “Woman.” Our old pal Army of Gay Unicorns recommended this track to us, and it is indeed the most romantic hardcore ’80s punk song we’ve ever heard, not to mention a harrowingly accurate depiction of marriage. (Love you, honey!) Also, the lead singer impersonates Animal from the Muppets, which is always a bonus.

16. The Residents, “Perfect Love.” Wise words from the patron saints of Weirdest Band in the World. Remember this song when you’re home alone crying this Thursday.

17. The Tiger Lillies, “My Funny Valentine.” When performed by our favorite Goth-punk cabaret trio with a full orchestra, the inherent twistedness of this old show tune really comes through. Did he really just call his lady love “unphotographable”? That’s some cold shit right there, Rodgers & Hart.

18. Klaus Nomi, “Valentine’s Day.” Shout-out to reader Adela for reminding us about this thematically appropriate (albeit indecipherable) song from the late, great synth-pop counter-tenor’s unfinished masterpiece, Za Bakdaz.

19. Ween, “Sweetheart.” After you’ve finished ravishing your lover and/or lotion collection with the sensual sounds of this playlist, you’ll probably want to lie back in post-coital bliss and crank some smooth, sweet yacht-rock, courtesy of the only band we’ve ever blogged about that’s done anything even remotely resembling a Boz Scaggs record. Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!

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

Weirdify Playlist 10: Novel Steez

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Happy Friday, kids! What say we get the weekend started with a fresh Weirdify playlist? This week’s theme: novelty songs.

Now in a way, nearly everything we’ve ever posted on TWBITW is a novelty song. But more precisely, a novelty song is any tune that’s more about making the folks laugh than it is about making any lasting artistic impression. Whether it’s a one-off by an otherwise serious (or at least semi-serious) band, or one of many from a master of the form (Barnes & Barnes, we bow down), a good novelty song should exist in its own little universe, totally apart from any considerations of what’s hip or trendy or even in good taste.

Also—and this may be a totally arbitrary distinction, but it feels important to me—novelty songs and comedy songs are not quite the same thing. This goes back to the “own little universe” thing: Comedy songs are usually created in response to or in parody of something, but novelty songs stand on their own. Also, novelty is weirder than comedy, I think. So no Lonely Island, no “Weird Al,” no Flight of the Conchords, not even any Tom Lehrer, excellent though all those artists are. They just don’t quite fit with the rest of this playlist.

OK, Jake says I should shut up now and get on with the music. So fire up the ol’ Spotify and let’s get novel:

1. Lonzo and Oscar, “I’m My Own Grandpa.” I decided to class things up around here a little and start with one of the classics. Lonzo and Oscar were a jokey country duo who scored big in 1947 with this, their one and only hit. Side note: This song was performed on the first season of The Muppet Show in 1976. Even after the Civil Rights era, incest jokes and making fun of hillbillies were still considered good family entertainment.

2. Ween, “Piss Up a Rope.” Gene and Dean Ween mostly played it straight on their Nashville album, 12 Golden Country Greats, but fortunately they decided to have a little fun with this boot-scootin’ kiss-off to a woman who “takes all my money and leaves me no smokes.” Who needs that kind of ag?

3. The Tiger Lillies, “Piss on Your Grave.” While we’re on the subject of pissing…

4. Evelyn Evelyn, “Elephant Elephant.” Amanda Palmer, one half of this fake-Siamese-twin duo, just raised a million bucks on Kickstarter. That’ll buy a lot of elephant feed. Is there such a thing as elephant feed? Anyway, Palmer definitely ain’t singin’ the…

5. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, “Credit Card Blues.” It’s an anthem for our times, really.

6. Red Shadow, the Economics Rock n Roll Band, “Gone, Gone, Gone.” As is this. Actually, this song is from the 1970s, when ripping off the Beach Boys was probably seen as “edgy.” Speaking truth to power was so much more adorable back then.

7. Wild Man Fischer, “Flaming Carrot Theme Song.” Did you know Frank Zappa’s semi-homeless protege once wrote a theme song for the Flaming Carrot comic book? Us neither, till we started researching this playlist. But we’re glad he did.

8. Klaus Nomi, “Rubber Band Laser.” Even by the bizarre standards of New Wave’s greatest counter-tenor, this track from his unfinished opera, Za Bakdaz, is pretty out there.

9. The Zambonis, “Zamboni Race in Outer Space.” It’s about drag racing ice-resurfacing machines—in space. Any questions? Too bad, we’re moving on anyway…

10. The Emotron, “Drink a Beer for Me.” A heartwarming song about one man’s love affair with beer.

11. Fred Schneider, “Monster.” Every time B-52’s frontman Schneider opens his mouth, it’s a novelty song. This one is especially silly though. Spoiler alert: It’s not actually about his penis.

12. Barnes & Barnes, “Boogie Woogie Amputee.” This duo is deservedly famous for their classic novelty tune, “Fish Heads.” But did you know they also recorded this totally awesome and slightly offensive ode to a girl who likes to go out dancing and “shake her stump”? Well, now you do. You’re welcome.

13. Twink, “Tiny Footsteps.” Toy pianos and squeeze toys gettin’ down with their bad selves. Fact: If you play this for dogs and/or babies, they will totally lose their shit.

14. Tiny Tim, “I Got You Babe.” If you hear the words “novelty song” and don’t immediately think of Tiny Tim, there might be something wrong with you.

15. Crispin Glover, “Clowny Clown Clown.” Yes, this creepiest actor this side of Gary Busey released an album in 1989—produced by Barnes & Barnes, no less. It’s called—let me make sure I’ve got this right—The Big Problem ≠ The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be. There was even once a phone number you could call if you thought you had figured out The Solution, but sadly, it’s been disconnected, along with Glover’s career. These things happen.

16. Jim’s Big Ego, “Bite Me (Hard).” Back when I lived in Boston, Jim Infantino and his band Jim’s Big Ego were one of the city’s most entertaining local acts. Most of his stuff is more clever than this, but for some reason that “Should I change my whole way of being?” line gets me every time.

17. The Upper Crust, “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” An AC/DC-style tribute to that really stupid children’s book your grandmother gave you for your eighth birthday. No? Just me? OK, moving on…

18. Schwarzenator, “Conan: The Destroyer.” An Iron Maiden-style tribute to the least necessary sequel of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. More unnecessary than Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, you ask? I say yes and I stand by that opinion. Bring it, film nerds.

19. Rasputina, “My Captivity by Savages.” A dramatic reading of a 19th century bodice ripper about a poor blonde settler girl enslaved by Injuns. See, kids? Your local library can be fun.

20. Slim Galliard, “Fuck Off (The Dirty Rooster).” A classic novelty platter from the man best-known for “Flat Foot Floogie (With the Floy-Floy)” and for making up a fake language called “vout” that mostly seems to have been a way to get dirty words past the radio censors. Another version of this song called “Chicken Rhythm” actually turned up on a compilation called Jazz for Kids. So yes, parents who play Jazz for Kids, you are subliminally telling your children to fuck off. Just thought you should know.

21. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “Constipation Blues.” Screamin’ Jay is, of course, the man behind “I Put a Spell on You.” But his other crowning gift to popular culture has to be this epic 1970 ode to taking a long, slow, painful dump. Stay with it till about the three-minute mark…that’s when he really start squeezing out greatness. (Shout-out to Bobo Golem Soylent-Greenberg for reminding us about this track and about the existence of Slim Galliard. You, Bobo, are a gentleman and a scholar!)

Hope you enjoyed this week’s playlist.