Levity & Novelty is the first volume of the yearlong 4-volume Anthems & Antithets project. Levity & Novelty is the funny one. 27 comic songs from indie-pop to theatrical numbers to a Tom Lehrer cover.
Back in my high school days I used to tune in Sunday nights to some low-power station in LA in order to listen to the Doctor Demento show, which ran for an hour or two and featured a wide range of novelty songs from the advent of the phonograph all the way up through the (then) present. Demento’s real name was Barry Hansen, a record collector specializing in novelty songs – and coincidentally the original manager of the band Spirit, and years later, the one who broke the earliest demos of Weird Al Yankovic (and many others). I know he must be getting up there in years, but someone told me a while back that his show is still on the air after all these decades. Hopefully Brian Woodbury has sent Hansen a copy of his latest Levity & Novelty for possible airplay – it’s a perfect match. Woodbury’s current release follows a number of previous others, starting with his late 80s debut All White People Look Alike. The album at hand is the first in a four part quadrilogy supertitled Anthems & Antithets, the remaining three to be released later in 2020. If you don’t like songs that make you laugh (or at least smile), this may not be for you, in which case you should go find some serious music like Bartók or Stravinsky. All songs but one were written by Woodbury (and occasional collaborators), the exception being the great Tom Lehrer’s “I Hold Your Hand in Mine” which is track number 24; yes there are 27 cuts in total, although some play for only fractions of a minute. The opener is “My Bad,” an ode to insincere apologies, and like many of the tunes here, Woodbury sings and plays everything (which across the album may include guitars, bass, banjo, keybosrds, percussion, ukulele, autoharp, ‘amateur fiddle,’ and more), although on other tracks he features a wide range of guest players and singers. There are a lot of standouts here, I can’t detail them all, but certainly “Complicated Rhythms” is among them, a jazzy three minute piece with great vocals and harmonies, and constantly changing meter. “Old Time Prog” follows, and is (appropriately) the album’s longest cut approaching the eight minute mark, featuring drummer Mark Pardy, woodwind player Mark Hollingsworth, guitarist Sam Woodbury, basoonist Allen Savedoff, and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Unicorn for a tongue-in-cheeky review of progressive rock clichés. “Women (You Know What I Mean?)” covers a number of humorous topics that every man will be familiar with. “You’re Like Hitler” is a hilarious tune, recorded with a live audience, providing that one final ending to any political argument. Closer “The Best Ever” is an ode to hyperbole in its many forms, starting with pancakes then moving on to mothers, then eventually getting around to sex, and the country. There’s a lot more among these 27 tracks that needs to be heard and appreciated, which can easily be done on Woodbury’s Bandcamp page. The best ever…
Peter Thelen, Exposé, April 8, 2020
Such a joke that one can see today! Musically brilliant and historically pure – on twenty-seven songs from a sixteen-second “Flashmob!” (expression for a bunch of overflow recessionists, which fits the whole album) to the almost eight-minute “Old Time Prog” – a guide to music from the beginning of the last century. A grumpy piano for a silent film, rocky-funky “Don’t Call Back,’ twenty-second metal ‘The Worst Song on the Album,” beautifully constructed polyphonic “Eternal Damnation” (CSN & Y would take it all ten!), swings tapping “The Brain” certainly non-mafia money bought by Frank Sinatra) or electro-vocoder gay “Hey Guys.” Woodbury, a composer, an excellent singer and a player of full (besides basic – guitar, keyboards) instruments including banjo, autoharp or ukulele, plus thirty listed musicians, leads the listener on a fluent guide through the history of music styles in his own way and with sharp humor. Sure, Frank Zappa used to do that. But Woodbury goes even further, with more precision. With Zappa, the parody / paraphrase was recognizable; but not so here. If you think about this revealing review and play a song from this collection at random, it is always completely different. The first “My Bad” is a personal ode, sacramentally pedaling with a beglajt guitar and an accordion instead of keyboards, verbally apologizing in advance to everything subsequent sorry sorry sorry my bad…, the dancer is a bit à la Pixies a bit Tiger Lillies, a lot of Beatles. In the second “Picture Me” above the piano, we are somewhere, ehm in our regions, in the position of Oldřich Nový aka Kristián, who here, however, in a text modernly impersonally on social networks, attracts / meets / chooses / seduces / his chosen ones. An exceptional highlight is the aforementioned “Old Time Prog,” in which you hear paraphrases on perhaps all the clichés (musically well executed), of which the prog rock has been cooking and living on for fifty years. If you open Woodbury’s profile at Bandcamp and continue to grind into his discography, a window will pop up asking: Do you want more amazing things?
Petr Procházka, UNI, Kulturn Magazin, May, 2020, via Google translate
- My Bad, about a compulsive apologizer (co-written with Amy Engelhardt)
- Picture Me, an elegant 1930s-style foxtrot about intimate photographs (co-written with Peter Lurye)
- Ava’s Couch, a surf song about couch surfing (co-written with Bill Berry)
- Eternal Damnation, a not-safe-for-church anthem, sung by Joe Moe
- (Gimme Some of that) Old Time Prog, a send-up of prog rock (co-written by & featuring Johnny Unicorn)
- Perfectly Awful, a Punch & Judy love duet featuring Deb Hiett
- Audience Participation, a claustrophobic tango about the hazard we face at live shows
- The Brain, a Tom Lehrer-esque roast of the overblown claims of neuroscience
- Don’t Call Back, an ardent paean to ghosting
- Medical Emergency, a 27-second musical PSA urging any listener experiencing a health crisis to dial 911
- You’re Like Hitler, about the favorite ace-in-the-hole for all political arguments
- A Man with No Foible, a bolero about the invisibility of our own bad habits
- And fifteen more
Even though the songs are comedic, there is no skimping on the music. Lush, intricate arrangements (often with strings, woodwinds, brass, chorus), performed by the likes of: Marc Muller, Jim “Kimo” West, Sam Woodbury, Edwin Livingston, Mark Pardy, Andy Sanesi, Peter Lurye, Sara Parkins, Maggie Parkins, Mark Hollingsworth, Chris Tedesco, Joe Moe , Kathi Funston, Amy Keys, & Paul F. Perry.