Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One Review, Thirty Minutes

The ad hoc creative team of Amanda Palmer, Ben Folds, Damian Kulash, and Neil Gaiman met in a Boston recording studio yesterday. The ambition of their stated goal, to produce eight songs in eight hours (hence the project and band name, 8 in 8, and to let the Internet world watch while they did it, attracted both fascination and notoriety in advance. The least one can do to honor the project is to respond in kind, with a thirty-minute review of their final six-song product, "Nighty-Night".

That they fell short of their goal numerically, producing six songs in twelve hours, is the least important aspect of the endeavor. The project may have started with an artificial time-challenge, but when time ran short they kept going, and quit when it was no longer sensible to continue. This was not the musical version of Chopped, the timed gourmet-cooking competition show; noone was required to step back from the keyboards and mixing console at the end of eight hours.

The six tracks reflect the disparate sensibilities of the contributors. Author Gaiman's contributions are the most witty and writerly, in a Sir Tom Stoppard meets Sir Noel Coward kind of way. Gaiman's "Nikola Tesla", a rock-staccato track voiced by Palmer atop her piano-percussion banging and Ben Folds' drums, shows off the writer's science-minded wit while reintroducing Palmer's meme of the everygrrrl torching for celebrities, à la the Dresden Dolls' "Christopher Lydon" -- or in this case, for a celebrity of historical interest. Later, Gaiman voiced his own sword-sharp lyrics in the collection's closing track, "The Problem With Saints", a modern-day Jean d'Arc sequel as Tom Lehrer might imagine it -- if Tom Lehrer were English.

That the album session appeared to some advance critics to be a mere stunt -- one commenter had worried about the prospective "jokiness" of the result -- may have spurred the team to incorporate large elements of sadness and poignancy into the collection. The haunting plea for a missing child to return is the subject of a Folds-Palmer slow duet, "Because the Origami", that leads the listener out of the realm of Dr. Demento into the hurt and pain of parental grief and desperation.

"Twelve Line Song", a Ben Folds-led number that mixes funny and sad, features the unlikely still life of a squirrel suicide in a bathtub. One suspects Folds, Gaiman, and Palmer don't quite have the "Who Killed Amanda Palmer?" faux-death-scene photo project out of their heads yet. The happy sounding tracking vocals are a seriocomic switcheroo, a trick that Palmer and Folds have used before, in W.K.A.P.'s "Oasis".

With more gravitas, Damian Kulash of OK Go takes the lead on "One Tiny Thing", a break-up song depicting the fragile nature of relationships. Kulash's mournful vocals revealed a soulful musicality which seemed upstaged during much of the project by the alpha squirrels in the studio. If certain songs reminded chat-room onlookers of the Beatles, then Kulash was this project's George Harrison. One imagines "One Tiny Thing" could ultimately become the most honored of the collection, if tribute is reckoned by the number of future cover versions from a wide variety of artists.

Which brings us to the penultimate piece, "I'll Be My Mirror", to me the true payoff piece of the project. As much forceful poetry slam as song, "Mirror" takes a tragic scene that everyone can relate to, the street person out of their right mind; Amanda Palmer's emphatic vocals bring home the startled onlookers' pensive, but-for-grace-there-go-I apprehension in the presence of the subject. A catchy fanfare of a piano riff and a crashing rhythm guitar add an exclamation point to each stanza without interrupting the angst and poetry of the lyric.

The overall verdict? "Nighty-Night" is a bit incoherent as a song collection, but several of the songs are highly worthy in their individual graces. The team created something of value and opened a window into the creative process. In particular, they revealed that worthwhile endeavors invariably take longer than even the most talented and productive creative types imagine that they will -- and at a full hour and thirty minutes instead of the budgeted thirty minutes to write this review, it's time for me to join them in saying, that's enough for today.

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