Saturday, May 31, 2014

Thrift Store Mystery CD Review: Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, "Sister Anthony"

Mystery CD: “Sister Anthony” by The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir
Found at: Savers
Price: $1.98 (again)
First impression:

                This one’s pretty provocative, I have to say.  Even before I saw the band’s name, that cover graphic gave me pause.  It’s not every day you see an ancient, creepy statue staring benevolent and cockeyed at you from a CD cover, especially one named “Sister Anthony”.  And that’s another thing, you rarely meet any sisters named Anthony.  I don’t remember at what stage I noticed the name of the band, but I distinctly remember wavering back and forth in my head, trying to decide if I really wanted this, since “Bourbon Tabernacle Choir” is a pretty obvious spoof on “Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” made all that much more poignant by replacing “Mormon” with an alcoholic drink, and as a convert myself I don’t usually deal too well with mean-spirited tauntings of my chosen faith.  On the other hand, though, the album did peak my curiosity, and even if it’s terrible it should at least be interesting.  Therefore, I thought, it was my duty to take it home, listen to it, and inform what little audience I have as to what I found.
                I’ve peeked at the liner notes and most of the lyrics seem to be disenchanted ranting in slanty verse.  A lot of words that end with an N and an apostrophe, lots of “ain’t”s and a lot of random lines repeated exactly four times in a row for no discernable reason.  Maybe it’ll make more sense when I actually listen to it.  Either way, I don’t think it’s metal (darn), especially after I looked at the credits where they list saxophone, accordion, organ, trombone and a bunch of other stuff that you don’t hear in most rock bands.  So what is this, irreverent folk?  Darkwave, maybe?  Then again, it could still be metal… one of my favorite metal duos frequently include banjo solos in their songs, so it’s possible they’re just getting a little creative.  Anyway, my curiosity is getting the better of me.  Let’s get this over with! 

1. Worms
                Oh goodness.  Oh my goodness…
                The first several seconds are a honky tonk piano and an amalgamation of other instruments just playing random dissonant melodies that don’t fit together over grumbling and talking.  Then it slowly fades out and we’re introduced to the main song. 
                The worst part is, this actually sounds like gospel music.  You’ve got the soft funk beat and strong bass line, the prominent electric organ and several saxophones, along with a gutsy lead singer and a smokey-voiced woman on backing vocals who sounds like she’s straight out of a southern revival church, one of those places where you’ve got the gospel choir all in blue robes and people going into convulsions in the aisles… This isn’t at all what I thought it would be.  Is this honest-to-goodness soul music??  What is this madness!?

2. The Down
                The easy listening gospel groove continues with the second track.  This is crazily upbeat, which is not at all what I was expecting.  When I looked over the lyrics they seemed angsty at best.  Was I just reading them wrong?  Are these songs actually incredibly happy and I just completely misjudged everything?  I’m so confused… It’s so upbeat and happy and it’s such a contrast from the weird and kind of dark packaging that I’m really having a lot of trouble wrapping my mind around this.

3. Defy My Love
                This sounds like the theme song to a nineties sitcom about a happy black family who all wear neon sweaters and learn a new life-affirming lesson every week!  For some reason the title of this one sounds like it should be a lot darker, and when I read the lyrics before listening to it I thought they were biting and sarcastic: Everyday you just wanted to get flaunted/ every night, you just want to get wanted/ I got you on the menu baby, restauranted/ so why do I always get daunted.  But with this upbeat funk groove and this guy’s positively joyful singing… well I guess it’s just a hard luck song about some lady who doesn’t feel the same way about him.

4. Death is the Great Awakener
                This one’s less funky than the others so far, but it’s still that easy going gospel feel and I am so lost.  So, so lost.  I mean, look at that title!  Does that sound like a gospel title?  This is so far off from what I was expecting I can’t even think.  It’s not bad… I mean, I don’t hate it.  It’s not the kind of thing I usually listen to, certainly… I don’t like soul-funk at the best of times, and this has definitely got that feel but I can’t truthfully say that I don’t like it.  It’s just so… happy

5. Nothing
                Sudden change of gears here.  All of a sudden the music is slow and weird and slightly out of tune and creepy.  The singer recites rather than sings.  He who is an ass and thinks himself to be a stag finds his mistake when he comes to leap the ditch.
                And that’s it.  It fades out quickly.  It isn’t even listed in the liner notes.  This is the most interesting song I’ve heard so far.

6. While We’ve got your Attention I’d like to point out a few things
                Really slow driving bass line here, sounds like it’s synthesized.  Neat melody though.  A little darker than everything else so far, but still really upbeat.  This is the song I paid most attention to when I was looking through the lyrics.  Again, it was a case where it looked like angry ranting at someone who’s perceived to be a bigot.  But this music is just so gosh-darned friendly that it’s hard to believe that these people could be even a fraction as cynical as their lyrics might suggest. 
                All things considered this is a pretty good song and I’m enjoying listening to it.  I just can’t get over how quintessentially nineties it is, though.  No matter how hard I try, I literally cannot stop picturing a sit-com’s opening credits, and it’s more than a little off-putting.

7. Solitude Mama
                A-one, a-two, a-one two three four… YOU’RE DOIN IT FUCKIN’ WRONG.
                …And that’s how this one starts.  Just when I think I’m getting a handle on the tone of this CD they throw that in there and now I’m back to not being able to figure out what the hell is going on.  As I’m listening to this the most intelligible thing I hear is something about milk going bad in the fridge.  I cheated and looked at the lyrics and I guess he just wants to be alone and is constantly looking for “solitude time”.  Listening a little closer, that is very clearly what the song is all about.  He just wants people to leave him alone.  What this has to do with somebody’s mother is anybody’s guess. 
                I don’t know.  I just don’t know.  They’re starting to sound like an upbeat and friendly band and then they throw that intro in there out of nowhere and now I’m back at square one. 

8. The Little Vagabond
                This starts out just like the first track did.  Honky tonk piano in all its glory with an accordion solo and women gossiping about… whatever.  Wondrous.  There’s a lot of swearing, I just noticed, in the background.
                Oh hey, they’re all singing together, like a singalong.  It’s a drinking song.  Kinda nice in a nostalgic family way.  Strange and cute, but something just doesn’t sit right with me.  Such usage in heaven will never do well/ but if at the church they would give us some ale/ and a pleasant fire, our souls to regale/ we’d sing and we’d pray all the live long day/ nor ever once wish from the church to stray.  Now stop me if this sounds crazy, but that sounds pretty mean, doesn’t it?  It sounds to me like they’re saying the only way church could hold their attention is if there was booze, and they could get drunk in the service, but there are so many things wrong with that even if you’re not a Mormon that it doesn’t really fit with the whole image they’ve clearly got going as a praise band.  Could this be a traditional song and this is just their take on it?  If it is, it’s one I’ve never heard. 

9. Bonus track: Put Your Head On
                So I guess this particular CD is a 1995 re-release of the group’s debut album which came out five years earlier, and that merits two bonus tracks.  Apparently they must have been really popular at some point for this to have happened, but I’ve never heard of them (obviously).  It’s more of the upbeat gospel funk, and why would it be anything else?  This song’s also incredibly short, so there’s that.

10. Bonus track: As Right As They Want To Be
                Oh, this is a live one.  The singer starts out wishing everybody a merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, then says that the song is dedicated to “The Holy Father, the Pope in Rome.” 
                Okay, all weirdness with their choice in album art aside, this is the main thing I’m having a lot of trouble with.  They sound like a gospel band.  They mention religion a ton in most of their songs.  He just dedicated a song to the Pope.  The problem is that when read without the music, the lyrics seem to smack with sarcasm and every other time they mention church or religion in their lyrics it seems to be with a fair amount of disdain.  But I don’t know if that’s just my own expectations clouding my judgment or if this whole album is really a subtle criticism on organized religion or even an entire atheistic rant (albeit a very well-disguised one), and it’s driving me nuts! 
                There’s nothing wrong with subtle commentary, and even though it’s not my cup of tea most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with praise-ey gospel music, but I can’t tell which I’m listening to.  There is a small but significant difference between being subtle and being confoundingly vague, and this is definitely in the latter category for me.  I don’t know what’s going on here and it’s maddening.  They clearly have some very polarizing opinions here but it’s nigh impossible to tell what they are.
                However, by the same token, I could just be overthinking this. 
                The music is good.  Whatever message they’re trying to convey, if they are even trying to convey a message, it sounds like they’re having a lot of fun doing it.  They’re all capable and talented musicians.  Hell, their style is soul funk and I still enjoyed it despite having a strong disposition toward hating that very genre.  I can be one hell of an uptight, stubborn bastard when it comes to music, and to make me enjoy something from a genre I have convinced myself that I hate takes skill, which these guys clearly have no shortage of.  If you strip away the lyrics and implied meanings, what you’re left with is a bunch of people who like to sing crazy songs and are really pretty damn good at it, all things considered.  And hey, maybe that’s all that matters. 

Overall impression:
                I can say with pretty good certainty that this CD won’t be turning into one of my favorites any time soon.  I won’t listen to it every day, I might not even put it on my mp3 player.  But I do like it, in spite of its vagueness.  Hell, maybe I like it because of its vagueness.  The more I think about it the more I realize that I could never get into gospel music because it all seemed too simple and narrow-minded to me, but this… this is not.  I’m not sure what it is, but it isn’t that.  I can say that it’s fun, it’s energetic, and it’s just weird enough to keep me interested.  Even if I don’t play it often, I am keeping it because someday I know I’ll be in the perfect mood to want to pop this into the CD player and relive all that sweet confusion and jam out to some sweet funk riffs.  And really, Solitude Mama is a pretty groovy song. 

Well, the first track of this CD actually has a music video, apparently…

…and good Lord, it’s one of the wackiest things I’ve ever seen.  It clears up some of my earlier questions about what their leanings are, I think.  That video is so off-the-wall goofy (and yet naively sincere at the same time- you can tell they were really trying), that I’m almost certain that the sarcasm I was getting from the lyrics were just my imagination getting the better of me; projected offenses that hadn’t actually happened.  Nobody here is mocking the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, they just chose a name that sounded funny and slightly off kilter and suggests an affinity for alcohol (which is not at all an uncommon thing to have).  In this case, a name is just a name, and they were a group of kids who just wanted to have fun making energetic music and psychedelic early nineties music videos.  I’d say they were successful.  Well done, chaps.  Well done indeed.

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