Given the band's prankster reputation, the album's ironic title, and cover pics that make the band members look like subjects in a Kenneth Anger movie (a good thing, in case you're wondering), I expected American Idol to be more concept than music, but it turns out to be a pleasant surprise twice over.
The chant that makes up the core lyric in the anthemic hidden track -- "Haven't you heard?/We are absurd!/We are the Oscars/Yeah Yeah Yeah!" --hits at the expected mood, but with the Lost Sounds' Alicja Trout and Jay Lindsey lending production help, the Oscars have fashioned a record that establishes itself as an assured slab of hardcore and proto-punk from the get-go.
With only three of 14 tracks over the three-minute mark, you might think American Idol would stick to this simple, sturdy formula, but, instead, the band stretches the strategy in some worthwhile directions, including a Byrds-like guitar intro on "Sympathy for Miss America" and mad-scientist keyboard (from Lindsey) on the celebrity-tweaking "My Limousine Is Waiting." And "280 ZX" is full-throttle art-noise that zaps your spine in the spirit of early Sonic Youth.
This musical expansiveness is matched by some equally compelling action in terms of lyrical content: The surging sex goof "What's Love Got To Do With It?" and the sharp "Limited Offer" are very in-the-tradition. But "Blow Yourself Up," where the band puts itself into the heads of the 9/11 hijackers with a damning detachment reminiscent of Steve Earle's "John Walker's Blues," is quite unexpected.
And if that doesn't give you something to argue with the band about, try "Man With Divine Gun," where the soulless-lives-of-middle-class-drones content comes off as mundane received "wisdom" until the pile-driving pogo beat threatens to carry you along anyway. But it also makes you wonder whether the band realizes that its finest lyric --"Ever jump off a bridge while your friends were crossing it?" -- is a question that cuts two ways.
The Oscars will throw a record-release party for American Idol Friday, April 9th, at the Hi-Tone CafÇ, with Care and the Original Three.
This well-conceived compilation from local label Inside Sounds features a bushel of Memphis artists performing a mix of newish songs written by local songwriters or familiar titles from the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, W.C. Handy, Lyle Lovett, and Bob Dylan. And it underscores a valid point: Memphis, more than any American city except perhaps New York, has been a rich subject of song. It'd be great if Rhino or some other enterprising label with deep pockets piggybacked on this concept. (I nominate Mott the Hoople's "All the Way From Memphis" and Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis" for inclusion.)
But I've been delaying writing about this record for a while now because I have such ambivalent feelings about it. Taken one song at a time, it's a charmer. But sometimes the relentless civic boost(er)ing and succession of blues-'n'-BBQ stereotypes make me want to slit my wrists. It's the same dilemma I have whenever I'm rabbit-punched by "Walking in Memphis" (here performed by Eddie Harrison): My first instinct is to groan, but when it gets to that she-said-son-are-you-a-Christian?-ma'am-I-am-tonight part, I always get a lump in my throat.
I'm probably being too churlish. After all, it's hard to fault a record that reaches back for Dan Penn's "Memphis Women and Chicken" or Mud Boy & the Neutrons' "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," even if it does rather unnecessarily repeat the title track (given a fine reading by both Susan Marshall and Gary Johns).
A couple of highlights: Daddy Mack and Billy Gibson sink their teeth into Chuck Berry's "Memphis" and make it sound every bit the classic it is. It's such a sad, beautiful song. In fact, the city is a pretty incidental component to what is a heartbreaking tale of parent-child separation. It feels odd amid the mix of blues celebrations and would-be jingles for tourist commercials, but I'm glad it's here. And the Delta Queens' "Memphis (Highway 72)" adds a welcome bit of noisy irreverence: "When I get back to Byhalia/Gonna make sweet love to you!"