Tummy Touch Records TUCH2029CD, 2011, CD album, 40m 39s
Hot zowee! This long player is really a gas, boys and girls! If the family that plays together stays together, then The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players are one fantabulous bundle of cosmic togetherness: these three way-out cats are as groovy as a corduroy overcoat and as hip as a coxa (that’s Latin for hip). The sounds they bring us are so far out they’re in, and they’ll put a smile on the face of everyone who knows the score.
In other words, this band’s music is an ironic pastiche of a particular kind of 1960s and 70s American sentimental pop-folk music, and of commercial mass culture’s attempts to stay abreast of (and profit from) psychedelia. The 60s charts were peppered with square versions of the cosmic and far-out, with their hilarious failures to imagine the perceptual world of the LSD user, and their bizarre lyrical juxtapositions. The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players are dominated (on record) by the persona of Jason Trachtenburg, who comes across like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons might if his soda-pop was spiked with acid, and he was brainwashed into political liberalism (preferably through the use of a giant, swirling, psychedelic back-projection like in The Ipcress File).
This is more than bald satire, however. Weird Al Yankovich uses pastiche as a comedic device, and his records are comedy records: the music collected on Lost And Found is located stylistically in a pastiche, but that’s not its creative end, any more than a blues rock shuffle was the end David Bowie had in mind when he recorded The Jean Genie. This album is a nuanced and complex thing, and although it is extremely funny, it is a serious creative endeavour, an artistic statement in its own right. This is evinced by the total coherence of the project, from the sounds to the packaging, and beyond, into the rest of the oeuvre, and into the band’s web presence.
An effective musical satire is more or less impossible if you don’t have some liking for the style you’re lampooning, and all the best satire is some kind of a homage as well. This is certainly the case with The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. The sounds from which they take their inspiration were some pretty sophisticated structures, produced by some highly trained and knowledgeable professional musicians (back in the old days, highly trained and knowledgeable professional musicians were the people usually placed in charge of manufacturing commercial pop music). For this reason, it takes some musicianship, as well as a sound understanding of the generic conventions, to pull off an album like this. There’s some great playing to be heard here, some harmonically and melodically literate writing, and some technically complex arrangements.
Jason Trachtenburg’s vocal delivery strikes an effective balance between the saccharine homeliness of a Richard Carpenter, and the tentative, insecure drama of a singing Woody Allen; he uses a singular, braying vibrato that doesn’t remind me of anyone I can think of, but sounds exactly right, and signals exactly the right sense of safe, asexual expressiveness.
A lot of destinations are visited by the various lyrics, which are in no way confined by the overriding concept: drug induced pastoralism, social alienation, materialism, surrealism and Rhodesian patriotic folk song all come in front of the Trachtenburgs’ distorting mirror, and find themselves reflected with a combination of acid wit and affectionate regard. With a statement as mediated and ironic as this it can be difficult to gauge the authors’ intentions, or how their own politics might relate to those of the characters in their songs; as I noted above, this is more than mere satire, and the relationship seems more subtle than it might be if that’s all it were. You’ll have to judge for yourselves, but the principal feature of the lyrics is certainly their humour, which is as infectious as it is clever.
These players are not just music players, they’re slideshow players. Which is to say that the music is just a part of the performance, and this album is no more than a partial record of what they do. The CD booklet reproduces a number of slides with the lyrics to eight of the songs on their mounts, and reading the lyrics with the images makes all the difference to the sense of the songs, even suggesting to me that the slides are produced in tandem with the words, rather than subsequently. I can’t say whether every single song has a full set of slides to go with it when they perform live, but I hope they do, because it’s a superb idea, and must make for a fantastic show. From listening to the album it could seem as though it’s all about the one guy, but thinking about the bigger picture it becomes clear how his wife and daughter make their contribution. Better yet, seek them out on the internet and watch some videos, or especially the Rachel Trachtenburg’s Homemade World films. These are extremely funny, and very endearing too. My only concern comes from imagining what it might do to a child’s mind to be raised in such an ironic and technicolor world!
The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players are a multi-media family enterprise, and a creative endeavour that spreads through most cultural activities, from poetry to handmade glove puppets; an album like this can only offer a narrow window on that world, and I’m now waiting with bated breath until they bring their show to the UK. Lost And Found is nevertheless a wonderful piece of art in its own right, by turns hilarious, charming, witty and curiously profound.