The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will soon be making its entire back catalog available for purchase in the form of mp3 downloads; despite this, they have reissued two of their early albums as CDs, Pluck (1997) and Hearts of Oak (1989.) A copy of each came to our house came a couple of weeks ago. Mrs Acilius and I have been listening to them more or less continuously ever since.
Hearts of Oak features eleven originals and four covers. Pluck features twelve covers and four originals. Two cuts from Hearts of Oak (“The World’s Number One Scat Singer” and “Western Lands”) and seven from Pluck (“Try Hard,” “Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Completely Broken Hearted,” “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” “Devil’s Galop,” “In a Monastery Garden,” and “I Think You’re Neat”) were among the eighteen tracks on the 2006 compilation album Top Notch. The band no longer offers Top Notch for sale on their website. I don’t know whether this means that they plan to make all of the tracks on it available in their original contexts by rereleasing 1994’s A Fistful of Ukuleles and 2000’s Anarchy in the Ukulele as CDs, or if those numbers will only be on the market as mp3s. I hope for the former; not only are the individual tracks worth having, but they flow into each other to make terrific sets.
Hearts of Oak is structured as an overture and two movements. The overture is “Chord Trick,” an abridgement of Henry Purcell’s 1695 Funeral March for Queen Mary arranged for electric ukulele; the result sounds vaguely like 80s Progressive Metal. The set is 21 years old; while several other cuts are recognizably artifacts of the period, this opening number is the only one that has aged badly. The flat electronic sound captures none of the urgency that builds so insistently through the original. An attempt to render the Funeral March for Queen Mary in the style of Queensryche may be typical of the UOGB’s eclecticism, but this performance is by far the weakest on the disc.
The next seven tracks represent what I call the set’s first movement, a series of vocals in various genres. “Just a Game” is as much part of 1989 as is “Chord Trick,” but evokes the bubblegum pop of the period far more successfully than “Chord Trick” evokes the metal. “Whatever It Takes” led Mrs Acilius to exclaim that Kitty Lux has the perfect voice for hillbilly music; as the missus is a card-carrying hillbilly herself, this was high praise. Indeed, Kitty Lux is the undoubted star of the band in these two albums. I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a shame that she’s taken a lower profile in recent years. On “There Was a Man,” Kitty sings about a man who needed shoes and was so excited when she gave him hers that he wore them out dancing for joy. When I first heard this folk-inspired number my main response was to wonder what it might have sounded like if it had been written in Spanish. It’s grown on me with subsequent listenings, but it’s not for those with a low tolerance for the twee.
The liner notes quote the Guardian hailing the fifth track, “Anything is Beautiful Which…,” as the moment when the ukulele “at last found its avant-garde.” The reviewer probably said that because of the lyrics, which consist of Kitty’s electronically distorted voice making little references to various nineteenth-century theories of aesthetics. If you aren’t up on these theories, don’t worry- the words are no more distracting than the nonsense lyrics of most pop songs, and the rhythm is powerful enough to get me, the missus, and both of our dogs up and dancing every time we play the disc. If you are up on aesthetic theory, the song is actually pretty funny, but you’ll have to take my word for that. Even funnier are the lyrics to “The World’s Number One Scat Singer,” which is George’s one turn as vocalist on this album. The song, which would appear on Top Notch as “The World’s Greatest Scat Singer,” actually does include some first-rate scatting, as well as lines that can get a laugh from any audience. “Easter Sunday,” a cover of Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s “Ostersonntag 1935,” is dark and dissonant, as one would expect from a Brecht/ Eisler lied. Though it is an arrangement of a song that was already 54 years old by the time the disc was first released, it is much closer to being avant-garde than is “Anything is Beautiful Which…” The speaker’s anxiety about an upcoming “Holocaust/ that will destroy this island, and these people,/ and the continent of Europe” calls for a great deal of dissonance, and the players execute the song brilliantly. That fearful song is the perfect lead-in for the title track. “Hearts of Oak” is short and arresting, a simple chord progression backing lyrics that express complex ideas about human connectedness. Following “Easter Sunday,” a song with lines like “Isolation and communion are written in hearts of oak” prompts deep thoughts about what it means to live a peaceful life as a human being among human beings.
With that, we move on to the third movement, seven instrumental tracks. To keep the pairing of “Easter Sunday” and “Hearts of Oak” from taking the listener too deep into intellectualism to enjoy the music, this starts with a sort of Texas two-step number, “Western Lands.” I don’t actually know the Texas two-step, but Mrs Acilius and I have devised a little dance for this one where I do a quasi-foxtrot and she dances with her shoulders while seated. “Nevada” is a quiet, steady number that might have sounded somber immediately after “Easter Sunday” and “Hearts of Oak”; with “Western Lands” lightening the mood in between, it’s no more downbeat than is a spaghetti western. The pace slows down even more for an arrangement of Rentaro Taki’s koto classic “The Moon over the Ruined Castle.” I used to live next to a professional koto player; she had a low tolerance for the ukulele. This performance is impressive enough that I might be tempted to play it for her, if she and I were still in contact. If anything could raise her opinion of the ukulele, this would be it.
After those two slow pieces, the pace picks up again with “Formica Top,” a Memphis Soul number that would have made Booker T and the MGs proud. Then comes an equally fast-paced novelty tune, “Minimal Rag.” “Minimal Rag” is the one Mrs Acilius wants me to learn. “Karaoke Corral” is another Western-swing themed fast dance.
The set closes with “The Con Man’s Chord Trick,” an arrangement for acoustic ukulele of the same Purcell march which had started it off in so unsatisfactory a fashion. This acoustic version is far superior to the electronic one. The repetitions that had been so tedious on the electric uke give this version an irresistible driving force. If only it had been chosen as track one and the electronic version had been cut, the album would have been in a different league.
Unlike Hearts of Oak, Pluck shows the UOGB in their now familiar form. Several members of the band take turns on lead vocals, most of the tracks are covers, and comedy is never far away. The band redid a couple of numbers in later performances. The version of “Life on Mars” here features Jonty Bankes giving a far less assured vocal performance than he would turn in when he sang the same song at the Barbican in 2005, even though the later performance also included several more voices making a melange of other, similar tunes. Here, Jonty’s only competition is George chiming in with the occasional line from “My Way.” That Barbican set also included Will Grove-White clowning through “Hot Tamales,” which he sings on this disc in a relatively straight version. The version here is more danceable, and I’m glad to have both.
The Wild West influence that is so much in evidence on Hearts of Oak peeks out a bit on Pluck, notably in the theme from “The Magnificent Seven.” Slowed down from the original version and played with reggae-like holes in the rhythm, this number will remind most listeners of the UOGB’s version of the theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (also part of the 2005 Barbican set.) That’s a shame; while the later piece is a much more impressive feat of musicianship, this one is also fun, and an interesting comment on the original.
Anyone who laughed at Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango” will howl through “Can I Break Your Heart?” Not only they; Mrs Acilius, for example, doesn’t seem to care for Tom Lehrer or that song, but she sings along and laughs when “Can I Break Your Heart?” comes on the CD player.
Amid all the jokiness, there are some serious songs. The lyrics to “Try Hard,” with its criminally-inclined narrator, may read like a joke, but the song as they play it turns out to have a touch of pathos; George and Kitty’s “Completely Broken Hearted” is quite affecting; and George’s rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” makes me want to jump up and cheer every time I hear it.
The best introduction to the band is a live show, or failing that, a video. So, if you are going to start buying their stuff, I would recommend starting with the videos they’ve released so far, one showing the 2005 Barbican show and the other showing last year’s performance at the BBC Proms. Once you have those, I would recommend Hearts of Oak. Pluck is a treat for confirmed fans, but I suspect most others would rather just download the mp3s of a few selected tracks.