Showtunes

Showtunes

by Stephin Merritt
     
 

You'd think that this Gotham songsmith would have enough outlets for his material, what with a good half-dozen bands and demi-bands at his disposal -- but, as evidenced by this solo outing, you'd be wrong. Technically speaking, this disc offers up exactly what the title promises -- songs that Merritt composed for the stage, specifically for plays directed by Chinese… See more details below

Overview

You'd think that this Gotham songsmith would have enough outlets for his material, what with a good half-dozen bands and demi-bands at his disposal -- but, as evidenced by this solo outing, you'd be wrong. Technically speaking, this disc offers up exactly what the title promises -- songs that Merritt composed for the stage, specifically for plays directed by Chinese auteur Chen Shi-Zheng. But in point of fact, the 26 pieces are less Sondheim-esque than much of the material that Merritt has turned out with the Magnetic Fields or the 6ths. He delves into playful surrealism (like "Ukulele Me!") that could pass muster on either Pee-Wee's Playhouse or a great lost Ween album. He crafts a square-dance-ready nugget of tumbleweed country -- that would be "Train Song," which comes across as doubly odd, since it's placed smack-dab in the midst of a Chinese opera. Heck, Merritt even channels the spirit of Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits on the woozy, purposefully stumbling "My Life as a Fairy Tale." But for all the offbeat instrumentation -- a palette of indigenous instruments like the Chinese jinghu (a two-stringed violin) and pipa -- there's no mistaking the creative force that's guiding them. That's particularly clear on "What a Fucking Lovely Day" -- the most weary, tragicomic, and, well, Merritt-esque track on the set. But even when he's putting aside his own bugaboos to tell the story of Hans Christian Andersen (the subject of Showtunes' final third), Merritt commands center stage, ever a showman, ever a diva.

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Editorial Reviews

All Music Guide - Thom Jurek
Showtunes, indeed. This is a stretch for fans of Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies, or the 6ths. In fact, Showtunes is a stretch for fans of Stephin Merritt, period, but a welcome one. The 26 songs that make up this collection are culled from three collaborative productions between Merritt and Chinese theater director Chen Shi-Zheng. Merritt wrote the music and lyrics to The Orphan of Zhao, written in the 13th century and adapted by Chen Shi-Zheng in 2003. It was performed in 2003 at the Lincoln Center Festival. The Peach Blossom Fan was produced in 2004 and performed at Rand and Edna Disney/Cal Arts in Los Angeles, and My Life as a Fairy Tale, based on the life and stories of Hans Christian Andersen, and also performed at the Lincoln Center Festival. The last of these offered not only Merritt songs, but his sound design as well. While music here has less than nothing to do with rock & roll, it is also unmistakably Merritt. Those of you who admire the man's wit, his tender if brutal honesty, and his brilliance in marrying music to his peculiar use of language will be enchanted because of its uncanny synchronicity despite unusual instrumentation throughout. In fact, the listener is asked to make a huge jump here. You are asked, basically, to forget the productions these songs originate from, and hear this as an album: a Stephin Merritt album. Certainly there is the arresting cover, the short summations of the plays themselves, and the scant illustrations in the package; but nonetheless, other than the opening instrumental "Theme from The Orphan of Zhao," which is done on auto harp, pipa, and jinghu, as a dead-giveaway, the whole set comes off as startling. The way the album is arranged -- the songs are interwoven, not sequenced according to production -- offers the first real proof that this is, in fact, really a Merritt album. The instrumentation across the board is unusual -- particularly on the tunes from My Life As a Fairy Tale, which is scored for Stroh violin, marimba, yanquin, and steel drums, and includes vocalists Blair Brown and Fiona Shaw. The dramatic flair of these tunes nods to the black humor and truly ironic world view of a man possessed by the spirit of Oscar Wilde -- even more than usual. These pieces, almost to a tee, are full of dry wit and an acerbic tongue. Check out "The Top and the Ball" (from My Life As a Fairy Tale), "What a F*cking Lovely Day" (Orphan of Zhao), and "Sorry Wrong Show" (Peach Blossom Fan) for quick evidence. As for the singers, there are loads of surprises here, particularly on this last tune, where Dudley Klute is almost a deadringer for Nick Cave! On "The World Is Not Made of Flowers," (Orphan of Zhao), Jenny Bacon sings with an iconic yet convincing dramatic flair for Merritt's searing lyric: "Though I will be your judge and jury/crushing your skull won't quell my fury...If you smell a bullet/passing through your nose
ed as a rose/Let it be mine....And while my anger still increases/I'll piss on all your little pieces." An achievement of Merritt's adapting his lyrics for the theater is in the economy of language; the excesses are carried by the music and the singers, rather than in the words. They are tight, spare, and more often than not, hilarious while still communicating the raw softness of the human heart. One can almost hear this as a reject from the 69 Love Songs material. Ultimately, this set may confuse and perhpas even infuriate some people. And then, of course, there are the rest who will be delighted, puzzled, and intrigued by the sheer originality of this recording. Showtunes is a step forward, a brave leap into art -- that remains popular art -- by one of the most mercurial and enigmatic songwriters out there.
Entertainment Weekly - Will Hermes
DVD visuals would help, but it still beats Andrew Lloyd Webber. (B)
Los Angeles Times - Steve Hochman
1/2 The music ranges as far as stylized Latin and Hawaiian, with wit and sophistication alluding at least vaguely to Gilbert & Sullivan, Weill and Sondheim.

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Product Details

Release Date:
03/14/2006
Label:
Nonesuch
UPC:
0075597989922
catalogNumber:
79899

Tracks

  1. Theme
  2. At Madam Plum's
  3. The Top and the Ball
  4. What a Fucking Lovely Day!
  5. Auntie Toothache
  6. It's Hard to be the Emperor
  7. Sounds Expensive
  8. The Red Shoes
  9. Fan Dance Cha-Cha
  10. The Little Maiden of the Sea
  11. Ukulele Me!
  12. Train Song
  13. The Little Hebrew Girl
  14. Shall We Sing a Duet?
  15. The Song of the Humble Serf
  16. The Collar and the Garter
  17. Shall We Sing a Duet? (Reprise)
  18. Sorry, Wrong Show
  19. The Storks
  20. In the Spring, When I was Young
  21. The Ugly Little Duck
  22. And He Would Say...
  23. The World is not Made of Flowers
  24. Behold the Lowly Centipede
  25. In China, Said the Moon...
  26. Hail! Son of Heaven

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Album Credits

Performance Credits

Stephin Merritt   Primary Artist
Blair Brown   Vocals
Charlie Giordano   Accordion
Ivan Johnson   Bass
Min Xiao-Fen   Pipa
Cory McAbee   Autoharp
Jon Natchez   Ukulele,Vocals
Brian Hall   Vocals
Douglas Quint   Bassoon
Kimberly Grigsby   Musical Direction
L.D. Beghtol   Ukulele,Vocals
Dudley Klute   Vocals
Shirley Simms   Vocals
Ernest Adzentoivich   Bass
Mary Lou Rosato   Vocals
Anne Harris   Ukulele,Vocals
Jon DeRosa   Ukulele,Vocals
Rob Roy Campbell   Vocals
Fiona Shaw   Vocals
Carla Murray   Ukulele,Vocals
Larry Krone   Ukulele,Vocals
Pinky Weitzman   Violin
Jenny Bacon   Vocals
Zachary Behrens   Marimbas
Fran Bennett   Vocals
Jon David Casey   Vocals
Chris Dionaldo   Vocals
Brittany Dunn   Vocals
Molly Frieri   Vocals
Kelly Hrehovcik   Vocals
David Patrick Kelly   Vocals
Benjamin Lerman   Ukulele,Vocals
Michael Liscio   Vocals
Sydney Maresca   Ukulele,Vocals
Kendall Jane Meade   Ukulele,Vocals
David Murgittroyd   Vocals
Jenna Pasqua   Vocals
Richard Pepenella   Vocals
Daniel Savell   Bass Drums,Steel Drums
Rob Scherzer   Vocals
Matthew Steiner   Vocals
Rachel Witmer   Vocals
Stephen Yesenosky   Vocals
Qian Yi   Vocals
Wei Guo Yong   Jinghu
Robert Campbell   Vocals
Williams Yeomans   Vocals
Ivan Johnson   Bass
LD Beghtol   Ukulele,Vocals
Lillian Chen   Yang Chin
David Patrick Kelly   Vocals
Mia Maestro   Vocals
Lily Ho Chen   Yang Chin
Charles Giordano   Accordion

Technical Credits

Andy Hay   Engineer
Scott Lehrer   Engineer
Bob Ludwig   Mastering
Mick Mahan   Engineer
Tom Rogers   Engineer
Stephin Merritt   Composer
Jamie Guan   Costume Design
Claudia Gonson   Management
Charles Newman   Engineer
Jing He   Costume Design
Van Portsche   Engineer
Anita Yavich   Artwork
Ray MacNamara   Engineer
Charles Newman   Engineer

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