The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s second live album

Live in London 2Day before yesterday, Mrs Acilius and I received our copy of the latest Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain CD release, Live in London 2.  We’ve been listening to it ever since. 

Because of their showmanship, the best introduction to the UOGB is a live show, and the next best is a video.  That’s why youtube has played such a big part in making them the international hit described in this New York Times piece and accompanying slideshow.  But they are excellent musicians, and their albums are all quite good.  Live in London 2 is not only as good as any of the others, but is probably the one that has the most to offer new fans.  It opens with four fast-paced numbers that have been responsible for a lot of dancing apud Acilium*  these last few days, “Dr Jazz,” “Silver Machine,” “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and “Rock Around the Clock” (audio samples are available on the album’s website.)  A couple of years ago, Mrs Acilius and I introduced the UOGB to her father with a video of them performing “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”  A former professional musician, my father-in law kept peering intently at the screen.  Every few seconds, he would exclaim “That thing only has four strings!”  The rich sound they extract from their little instruments really is worth an exclamation or two. 

Track five is “America” from West Side Story.  Hester Goodman sings the alto part as a solo, and the orchestra concentrates on the bottom half of the score.  This is rather daring musically, and the song was evidently a daring choice as well.  The lyrics make it clear that the speaker is a Puerto Rican living on the mainland.  Hester doesn’t try to put on a Puerto Rican accent; singing slowly and singing fewer notes than we might expect from a soloist, she manages to sound like a Puertoricena working hard to pass for an Englishwoman.  I’m not quite sure what the London audience expected them to do with a song that opens with “I like to be in America”; the laugh that rumbles through the hall when Hester sings those words suggests to me that they might have expected something sarcastic to follow those words, perhaps a novelty tune or a protest song.  What the UOGB actually delivers is a musically sophisticated and emotionally complex number, a quietly intense reverie that expresses both homesickness for San Juan (actually Hester does pronounce the word “San Juan” with a bit of a Puerto Rican accent) and anxiety about life on the mainland.  It’s very humane, very affecting, and it won quite a cheer at the end.

Track six is the theme from “Shaft.”  There was a studio version of this same song on their album Precious Little;  this version is quite different musically and also incorporates some new jokes.  Track seven, “Slave to the Rhythm,” makes me wish the musicologists among my friends didn’t always flee the moment I utter the word “ukulele”- like other songs where Kitty Lux sings the lead, it is rich in sonorities that I don’t have the vocabulary to describe.  “Slave to the Rhythm” is shorter and less complex than the song that has been Kitty’s masterpiece with the UOGB so far, “MacArthur Park” (included on The Secret of Life.)  Something on the scale of “MacArthur Park” might not have fit in the set at this point, but “Slave to the Rhythm” is perfect.

Track eight, “Two Pints of Lager,” is a novelty song.  I could have sworn Will Grove-White included a studio version of it on his solo album, Will Grove-White and the Others, but I’m holding my copy of that CD in my hand right now and it isn’t there.  It’s very funny, the perfect bridge between the heavy chromatics of “Slave to the Rhythm” and the lightness of the tracks that follow.   

How light are they?  Well, Dave Suich introduces track nine, “Only You,” as “a song about a tree and a sheep.”  Richie Williams (or maybe it’s Dave again, I can’t always tell their voices apart) introduces track ten, “On the Beach at Waikiki,” by announcing that “For all those who are wondering, Is it hot in here or is it just me?- It’s just me.”  Track eleven is Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime”; in the studio version of this song on The Secret of Life the UOGB had performed the song in true Gainsbourg fashion; the quasi-pornographic sighing and moaning is funny if you can visualize the Ukes doing it, since they seem like a group of people who’ve lived in the same house since birth.  If you don’t think of them that way, that version of the song may be sexy to you, but not funny, unless you laugh at Gainsbourg.  The version on this album is funny even if you’ve never seen the band.  George Hinchliffe imitates a cartoon Frenchman, complete with that weird nasal laugh that Anglophones believe the French have, Peter Brooke Turner boasts of his physique, and Kitty tries to flirt with a horrified Hester.  Indeed, Kitty shows a comic gift throughout this track that she hasn’t had much chance to develop with the UOGB.   

Track twelve, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” is back into a minor key, and then a rousing “Limehouse Blues” sets us up for the closing selections.  Track fourteen, “Thunderball,” showcases Peter Brooke Turner in his mock-macho “Tony Penultimate” mode;  I must confess that most of what his songs in this mode I’m done with after I’ve heard them once, but “Thunderball” wears quite well.  The joke is more subtle, since his singing is impressive enough that we might believe that he really would be the macho jerk he ridicules.  Track fourteen, “Leaning on a Lamppost,” is another repeat from The Secret of Life, and thank heavens for it.  The studio version of that song had featured Peter’s baritone in the part of the “certain little lady,” a cheap joke added to a number that was already full of humor.  This live version splits the lady’s part between Hester and Kitty, and it’s terrific. 

The album closes with the “Fly Me Off the Handel” melange; this is another one that makes me start laying a plot to trick my music theory professor friends into giving the Ukes a chance.   George starts playing a piece by Georg Friedrich Handel, then the other members of the band join in one by one, each singing a different song to the same progression.  Peter belts out a first-rate version of “Fly Me to the Moon”; Dave sings “Love Story”; Kitty, “Autumn Leaves”; Will sings Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”; Richie, “Killing Me Softly With His Song”; Jonty Bankes, “Hotel California”; Hester, “I Will Survive.”  The relationships between one song and another are quite complex; I’ve often thought a music theory class could profit greatly from analyzing the piece and figuring out just why it works.  All I know, musical ignoramus that I am, is that it does work.  In fact, it is spellbinding.      

*Latin for “at the Acilius house”- well, my name is Acilius, isn’t it?  Of course there’s going to be Latin.

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you for this very thorough review of the UOGB’s latest CD release.
    I was wondering if I should buy this CD as well because a few of its tracks are on the DVD “Anarchy in the Ukulele” which I own.
    Your review has now convinced me that I should.
    It is actually their Fly me of the Handel performance that made me discover the ukulele!

  2. acilius

     /  October 6, 2009

    Thank you for your kind words, Armelle! You certainly will not regret buying this CD.

  3. Acilius,

    thanks to you I have now ordered their latest CD 🙂
    I’ll let you know if I get the “dancing” effect too 🙂

  4. acilius

     /  October 9, 2009

    I’m glad to hear it! It’s a very good set. At our house, even the dogs are dancing by the time they get to “Rock Around the Clock.”

  5. Got their CD today. Now I’ve got compulsive foot tapping and I can’t keep my head still. It won’t be long before I start dancing ! Thanks for your recommendation !

  6. acilius

     /  October 13, 2009

    Great news, Armelle! Keep us up-to-date.

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