Mercurial – Asylum Street Spankers
Spanks-a-lot Records 041
The Asylum Street Spankers have been attacking the American Songbook and battling the evil forces of eee-lectricity for ten years now. The
Austin-based collective, which has seen seemingly dozens of players pass
through its ranks, has always had a bawdy and irreverent sense of humor, but
it once prided itself primarily on breathing life into old-timey music.
Live gigs were unamped, and albums (like the exceptional _Spanks for the
Memories_) were recorded on a single mic. With only three of the band's
early members remaining (Christina Marrs, Whammo, and Stanley Smith) things have understandably changed over the years (like the sneaky mics at gigs). The all-acoustic sound, musicianship, and whimsy are all still here on
Mercurial as is the nearly archeological ability to unearth unknown gems to cover, but the band is cheekier (leaning more toward parody than update) and more rarely plays it straight.
When they do play it straight, one is hard-pressed to find better
revivalists. Two of the best come from Stanley Smith, whose clarinet is a
highlight throughout the album. Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby"
and Taj Majal's "Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue" have likely never sounded better. Marrs' high-voiced "Shine On Harvest Moon" sticks to the script, but it's the bawdy "Sugar In My Bowl" that stands out. She has an astonishing voice that often hides behind gimmickry, but here its power and nuance are out front and undiluted. Less impressive but more fun is her take on Max Elder's "D.R.I.N.K." ("It takes a lot of steady drinking to keep me on the rails"), but beyond that the band is done playing it straight.
The Spankers pull out three full-blown gimmick covers. The first, a
boogiefied, Stray Cats-ish take on the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere" which
finds Whammo uncharacteristically under-the-top, stalls out, choking on
repetition. Black Flag's "TV Party" (recorded before Henry Rollins screamed
all the whimsy out of the hardcore band) suits Whammo better and gives the
band a chance to vocally and musically name check TV shows from "The
Courtship of Eddie's Father" to "Love Boat" to "The Sopranos". Silly?
Absolutely. Fun? Hell yeah.
The last of the gimmick covers is played, surprisingly, straight. When I
was six years old, there was nothing cooler in the world than riding in the
back of Scott Poteet's white Camaro with the T-tops off listening to
cassette tapes. _Zenyatta Mondatta, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are
Devo_, early Wings, and the self-titled debut from the B-52s. When the
bass and harmonica on this record lay down the pulse to the b-52s "Dance
This Mess Around," I am transported, and it is blissful. Is it a good song?
Hell, I couldn't tell you. It's beside the point for me. All I can tell
you is that I haven't had this much fun with a song or because of a song
since my brother and I flubbed all the words to "Rock Lobster" in the back
of that same Camaro. Pardon the self-indulgent tangent.
But speaking of self-indulgence…Some of the cheeky, wink-wink jokes on
this record work. When "Digga Digga Doo" slides into the "Creature Cantina"
theme from Star Wars, it works. When the boys bring the doo-wop
behind Christina's "Got My Mojo Workin'," it's questionable. When Whammo
launches into "Hick Hop" (the album's only original tune) the wheels fall
off. Whammo seems the Spanker most likely to cross the line, whether it's
the line of self-indulgence or of good taste. Here, he leaps into some
bizarre and highly referential land few, even the cowboys with the woofers
in the back of their Z71s, will want to visit.
Mercurial presents a band as dedicated to making you laugh as it is
to the largely forgotten material it adores. Sure some of the jokes are
clunkers. Sure some of it is self-indulgent crap, but no band does what the
Spankers do as well as they do it. It's all secondary to me anyway. I'm in
the back of a Camaro doing the Aqua Velva.