Show Tunes Label: Nonesuch
As the creative genius behind the Magnetic Fields, the Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, and the Gothic Archies (the latter being one of the best band names everrrrrrr), Stephin Merritt has for years now been the hero to music critics and record store employees everywhere. Of late, he’s even being championed by the elite mainstream media, receiving attention on National Public Radio. This is possibly a good thing, as no one short of spectacle-wearing, chardonnay-sipping NPR listeners are likely to buy into Merritt’s latest album, Show Tunes…and I say this as someone who is preparing to make his annual donation to his local station, so don’t get all huffy.
Show Tunes bears an apropos title, as it’s basically a best-of collection from Merritt’s three theatrical collaborations with director Chen Shi-Zheng: “Orphan of Zhao” (2003), “Peach Blossom Fan” (2004), and “My Life as a Fairy Tale” (2005).
Merritt’s been on record for years as saying that his favorite band of all time is ABBA, but this material is less Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus than it is Gilbert and Sullivan; additionally, the songs are sparsely produced and played on acoustic instruments. It’s not as though some of the tracks aren’t catchy. In particular, while there’s no denying that “Ukulele Me” is one of the dumbest songs you’ll ever hear (“Ukulele, me-kulele…one-kulele, two-kulele, three-kulele…”), it is so insidious that it latches onto your cerebral cortex like those ear-boring creatures in “The Wrath of Khan” and won’t let go. “What A Fucking Lovely Day” is a perfect parody of an Anthony Newley song, and “Shall We Sing A Duet?” provides extremely nice vocal interplay; you could even argue that “At Madam Plum’s” has a gothic feel to it, while “Sorry, Wrong Show” is a cross between Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Additionally, while Merritt composed these songs, he doesn’t sing them. This is not without precedence in his back catalog (witness the 6ths album, which featured everyone from Mitch Easter to Lou Barlow taking the vocals), but here the tasks fall to folks like Fiona Shaw, Jenny Bacon, and Dudley Klute, who are not exactly what you’d call pop stars.
Fans of musicals will probably enjoy songs like “Little Maiden of the Sea,” “In the Spring, When I Was Young,” and “Ugly Little Duck,” but with these Show Tunes, a little goes a long way. Diehard Merritt fans will no doubt shout “hallelujah” and proclaim this further proof his musical genius, and perhaps it is. Certainly, if we were judging it solely on its album cover, it’d earn 4 stars without any trouble at all…but when rating it on the basis of whether it will inspire regular spins in the CD player, Show Tunes scores very poorly, indeed.