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Published: 2004/07/29
by Chris Gardner

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.

Well, almost.

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.

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