Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Barry Louis Polisar Tribute Album - Part 2

If you're into quirky independent cinema, chances are you've already seen this title sequence from the film Juno:

The composer and performer of this song is Barry Louis Polisar, and many folks saw the success of this song--the album won a Grammy for best compilation album--as an overnight success, which it would have been except for the fact that he wrote it about thirty years ago. But the fact is that Polisar is now enjoying an increase in popularity, something well deserved after three decades of entertaining, educating, and singing for kids.

Now some of those kids, all grown up, are returning the favor. In September I wrote about the announcement of a tribute album called "We're Not Kidding"; that post includes a press release with some really good information. The album was finally released on December 4, and it's been well worth the wait. Under the guidance of Radioactive Chicken Heads singer Aaron Cohen, a reported forty-five musicians (including some appearances from Polisar himself) have gotten together to rework and record sixty tracks of Polisar's music. The musicians include a few I've heard of before, like Tor Hyams who I wrote about a couple weeks ago, but for the most part since music isn't my main professional focus it's introducing me to a whole bunch of people who warrant further investigation: the Vespers, J-La, Deleon, Kid Kazooey, Elizabeth Street, Alyssa Robbins, Rutherford B. Hayes Is Dead, Purple Mums, Rebecca Loebe, the Boogers, Tom Vincent, Le Page, Ham & Burger, Jeff Forrest, Haunted Cologne, the Brothers Vilozny, Bonnie Phipps, League of Space Pirates, Your Little Pony, and of course the Barry Louis Polisar Self-Aggrandizement Choir (who sing "The Tushie Song"), plus dozens of others.

The stylistic breadth of the album, which consists of two discs of thirty songs each, is just as broad. The first thing I did was compare the different versions of "All I Want Is You," the song from Juno above (and, yes, Polisar's use of the title predates U2 by quite a while). The Vespers start out the entire album with an amazing rendition, possibly if I dare say it better than Polisar's own: the twangyness and harmonica which give the original much of its flavor is gone in favor of discrete harmonies between the female singers, lending it an air of Alison Krauss singing "Down to the River to Pray" on that other Grammy-winning soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou?. (I was intrigued enough by this number to quickly go to the second disc to hear them sing the more up-tempo "Barnyard Stomp," and they carried that off equally well. According to their My Space page, linked above, their first album will be out in March, so that's something to keep an eye out for.) Closing the entire album is an "All I Want Is You" cover by Noga Vilozny that takes it in the other direction, a rollicking, swinging rock number that puts some boogie into it. The version by Eric Hartereau is pretty traditional except that it's in French, which is quite a kick ("C'est Toi Que J'veux"; all I got out of it was a "femme" and a "toi" or two). And then there's a parody/redux by Polisar himself at the end of the first disc featuring dazzling new lyrics like "...if you were a cow, I'd be the utter." Takes your mind in whole new directions...

Of course, that's not unfamiliar territory for his lyrics. There are plenty of songs like "'Doo-Doo' Is a Bad Word," "I'm a Slug," "Don't Put Your Finger Up Your Nose," and so on that delve into the comic and the disgusting. He's not shy about investigating the darker sides of childhood--mean teachers, not sharing, and so on--but there's plenty on here that's sweet and tranquil as well. Because of some of the more mature lyrics and hard rocking arrangements (heavy on the electric instruments and drum kits), this might be a little much for some of the littler children, but it's on a song by song basis--it's essentially a compilation album, after all. It's probably all good listening for kids in the older crowd, especially if they've been exposed to rock at all before, and some songs are great for the littlest tikes: my Isabelle, who's all of three months, was grooving to the Vespers and Elizabeth Street's "That's What Makes the World Go Round."

One other factor leaning this toward older kids, though, is the vocabulary, which can be pretty challenging. Much of it might go right over kids' heads, but on the other hand it can help them learn and stretch in ways that they might not otherwise; I can still remember a good old Elvis Presley song sending me to the dictionary when I was about ten to look up what a "ghetto" was. They Might Be Giants and other good lyricists do this (that's where I learned about echidnas, for instance), and Polisar seems right at home in that crowd. Besides that the rhymes are catchy and often funny, something making this good listening for parents as well as for kids. The fact that Juno was in no way a kids' movie speaks to the cross-over appeal Polisar's work has.

Here's another review of the album, by Paula Slade, and there's a lot more information, including blurbs from a lot of other reviews, here. I'd like to thank Polisar for letting me know about all of this and all of his personal interest in my work as well; his interest and warmth in the few emails we've exchanged has gone way beyond that of a musician trying to promote his new album. As I've listened to the music I think that kind of attitude has carried over into his own work as well.

At the end of the day it's a compilation album and is therefore a mixed bag, but overall the album's quite excellent and well worth checking out. If you're interested more information is available on his website, and for those of us involved in children's television it's really interesting to check out the clips from his old TV show Field Trip, which won two Emmys in its evidently too-brief run. With all the renewed interest in Polisar's work, perhaps it's time to resurrect this concept as well...

1 comment:

R.Dress said...

I really enjoyed the melody and the lyrics to this song. Thanks for introducing him to me=)