Humor, The West, And Love
Review of: Love Letter On A Fish CD
By Arthur Wood, Founding Editor, Folkwax, 12/31/08
FolkWax Rating: 8 Reader Rating: 7
This fourteen-song, nineteen-track live recording is subtitled Live At Tales From The Tavern Too. The reason? In 2003, this Santa Ynez, California-based, concert series released a now out-of-print disc by Michael Smith titled Such Things Are Finely Done. The latest collection was recorded at The Maverick Saloon on March 12 of last year. Humorous lyrics, the subtle variety, are a Smith speciality and from the outset he's right on the money with "Dead Egyptian Blues." Historic references, Egyptian and ancient, rub shoulders with contemporary American parallels, as Smith recalls Mr. Tut aka Tutankhamen, the one-time ruler of that hot and sandy Middle Eastern land. Here's a rib-tickling smidgen: "Your sarcophagus is glowing, but your oesophagus is showing / Who cares how rich you are love / When you look like Boris Karloff / And they even named this dog food after you" (no longer manufactured/ sold Stateside, King Tut is the brand of dog food to which Smith alludes). Smith closes the number with imitations of Boris Karloff as well as a mummified Tut attempting to hold the tune. Anne Hills, Smith's buddy and occasional musical collaborator, covered "Rondi's Birthday" on her 1993 Smith tribute collection October's Child. A gifted poet, Smith's lyric opens with "Red leaves of October turn November brown/Winter's always early in Chicago town."
Long-time fans will be well aware of Smith's love for westerns and "Tom Mix Blues" and "Palomino Pal" - a tribute to Roy Rogers - are evocations of that love affair. Between the foregoing pair, Smith recalls Mix and how, as an adult, he met and shook hands with, but failed to engage in conversation, his childhood hero Rogers. I recall first hearing the late Steve Goodman's rendition of "Spoon River" over three and half decades ago and every subsequent hearing continues to bring those chills. Set during the months following the American Civil War as the lyric unfolds a vivid movie plays in my head, filled with images of riverboats, soldier boys "asleep in the dirt," couples waltzing, celebratory bells, and more. So much more.
Unimaginative love songs that lyrically plough the same old, same old moon, June, spoon, oh woe is me, bore me senseless. The foregoing sentence has been heavily sanitised. Michael Smith, however, has repeatedly proved that he is adept at focusing on the ordinary and conjuring the exquisite and extraordinary. A new work, "Barbara Dodd," recalls a short teenage infatuation with a girl from Passaic Valley High. "Panther In Michigan" and "Vampire," both edgy creations in their own right, debuted on Smith's self-titled debut for the much missed Flying Fish imprint, while "Tom Dundee" - a Chicago-based Folk musician and, like Smith, a member of the tribute quartet Weavermania - is an amusing and sly skit (wink, wink) that suggest Smith's siblings and mother simply worship Mr. Dundee's musicianship. Crossing the Styx, passing beyond the veil, whatever "We Become Birds" is a prayer that attests to the beauty that exists should one dare to seek it on this side of the veil.
Smith made his initial foray into musical theatre with the late Bob Gibson. Later, he contributed the score to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's (musical) production of The Grapes Of Wrath and more recently he has written a number of musical adaptations of well known children's stories (usually presented at Chicago's Victory Gardens). Based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, Smith performs the giggle-inducing "Love Letter On A Fish" - "It would give me such a thrill to read 'I love you' on each gill / Or 'darlin' on a marlin, things profounder on a flounder" - while from the more recent work, Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, there's "Bees, Bees, Bees, Bees, Bees, Bees, Bees." Leavened toward the close with a degree of pathos, "Crazy Mary" works as a musical nursery rhyme and as one of those scary stories that children tell and retell each other. Remember those teen tragedy tunes that saturated the airwaves during the late 1950s. In that regard, Smith encores with the short but humorous "Teenage Heaven."
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