The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain rereleases two early albums

The re-released

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.

Prom Night: The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Live at the Royal Albert Hall

On Tuesday, 18 August 2009, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was a headline act at the BBC Proms, an annual festival more formally known as the Henry Wood Promenade.  The BBC Proms goes on for about ten weeks and includes dozens of concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall, as well as chamber music performances in nearby Cadogan Hall and a variety of lectures, films, and other fringe events devoted to music.  The UOGB’s performance at this year’s Proms was a big hit; here’s a high-resolution picture of the audience (beware, it can hypnotize you; I just spent three solid minutes trying to follow people’s lines of sight and figure out who was looking at whom,) and an article from The New York Times (the NYT piece is the same one I linked to in my review of the UOGB’s album Live in London #2, if it looks familiar to you that may be why.)  

A DVD of the performance went to press on the 3rd of this month, and today a copy of that DVD arrived at the Acilius household. 

The UOGB has already released audio tracks of ten of the fifteen songs from this set.  Performances of “Anarchy in the UK,” “Life on Mars,” “Teenage Dirtbag,” “Pinball Wizard,” “The Dambusters March,” “Melange,” and “Wuthering Heights” can be found on Live in London #1; “Silver Machine” and “Thunderball” are on Live in London #2; “Psycho Killer” is on Precious Little.  Two songs, “Anarchy in the UK” and “Life on Mars,” are already available on their previous DVD, Anarchy in the Ukulele.  The five numbers that are new to disc are “Puffin’ Billy,” “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Danse Macabre,” a fragment of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “arranged for 1008 ukuleles”; and “Jerusalem.”  Of those five, “Puffin’ Billy” is chiefly a setup for “Anarchy in the UK,” and “The Ride of the Valkyries,” while an astounding example of musicianship, turns out to be an extended intro for “Silver Machine.”  Is it really worth  paying £15.00 plus postage for so much old rope? 

I say yes, emphatically yes.  The disc records not only fifteen fine performances, but an extraordinary moment in the history of the ukulele.  The most anticipated number was the Beethoven fragment, the UOGB leading 1000 audience members in the “Ode to Joy.”  The camera pans through the audience, showing hundreds of ecstatic faces.  A DVD extra shows the rehearsal the UOGB did with the uke-bearing members of the audience beforehand.  The “Ode to Joy” is of course a setting of a poem about universal brotherhood; it’s a bit breath-taking to know that and see such a large and diverse crowd join in playing the piece.  It’s almost a shame that UOGB does such a good job with the “Ode to Joy”; I wish it could become part of their regular repertoire, but where will they find 1000 sidemen to accompany every performance? 

Emotions clearly ran high in the hall throughout the concert.  Towards the beginning, Dave Suich recalls his last visit to the Royal Albert Hall, when he paid five shillings to sit in the gallery and listen to Black Sabbath.  Peering up, apparently at the spot those five shillings had bought him, he seems amazed to be on stage.  When Hester introduces “Teenage Dirtbag,” she makes a joke that it’s a poignant song for her because she’d expected to be alone on Prom Night; as she mentions the 6000 people in the hall and tens of thousands more listening on BBC 3, she loses her comic timing and seems to choke up.  High definition usually isn’t a friend to anyone over 30; Hester is an exception.  She doesn’t look a tenth of her true age, and the flicker of emotion on her face in that moment is worth a great deal.  When I talked about Hester’s “Teenage Dirtbag” in my review of Live in London #1,  I summarized it as a “ballad of adolescent lesbian angst”; it’s sobering to see how many visitors still come to this site having googled “hester goodman lesbian.”  At the risk of drawing more of that traffic, I’ll say that the human race would be the poorer if some among us did not go through adolescent lesbian angst.  I’d go so far as to label adolescent sexual angst in all its forms as an indispensable part of the human experience.  Hester has produced a powerful testament to that form of adolescent angst, and my hat’s off to her for it.  Not only mine; Mrs Acilius turned to me as we were watching “Teenage Dirtbag” and said the song filled her with pride every time she hears Hester sing it. 

In a DVD extra showing the players getting ready, Kitty Lux confides to the camera that singing “Jerusalem” as a solo in the Royal Albert Hall is “a dream come true.”  Introducing it on stage, she confesses that she isn’t sure she has the “temerity” to do it.  She wasn’t feigning the nerves; she stumbles over the lines at one point, and at the end Richie and Will touch her shoulders to reassure her.  With so much strong feeling, it’s only right that by the end of the evening hundreds in the audience are waving their ukuleles above their heads in time with the music.

I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all about weeping the tears of inspiration.  “Puffin’ Billy,” a tune used as the theme song for a number of radio and TV programs for small children, leads into an especially hilarious rendition of “Anarchy in the UK.”  “Ride of the Valkyries” and “Silver Machine” are a humorous pairing, and would get laughs even if Dave hadn’t made a comment comparing the “European” Wagner piece with the “British” rock tune.  Peter plays it cool singing “Thunderball,” letting the words get the laughs.  The moment in “Pinball Wizard” when the other seven shout at George to “Shu-duppa-yo-face!” is hilarious as audio, even funnier with video. 

I first heard Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” in school when I was a little boy.  The recording our music teacher played for us featured pizzicato very prominently.  I asked him what instrument that was; he said the violin, plucked rather than bowed.  I wanted to sign up for violin lessons on the spot.  What I really wanted, I now realize, was a ukulele.  The UOGB’s version of the piece lets ukuleles sound like themselves, rather than trying to use violins to substitute for them.  While George introduces the piece by warning us that the ukukele doesn’t have enough sustain to play the “Danse Macabre” quite the way Saint-Saens wrote it, the version they play is thoroughly excellent.  Not least in its ability to get the listener up and dancing. 

Most of the performances are the same musically as the versions on their albums, but the video adds a great deal nonetheless.  For example, listening to “Psycho Killer” on Precious Little, you hear a rousing song and suspect that it’s supposed to be funny somehow.  Seeing Will play the role of a seriously disturbed person as he sings about being a “psycho killer,” you laugh at the absurdity of the song, even while you want to dance.  

The obvious place to end the set was with the “Ode to Joy,” but since most of the audience had just attended a rehearsal of that one, it wouldn’t have been much of a climax.  The regular program ends rousingly enough with the “Dambusters March”; the first encore, “Melange,” would also have been a suitable conclusion, amazing the audience as it does with the UOGB’s ability to keep a common thread while each member of the band is alternating between 3 or 4 songs, most of which are solos.  The second encore, “Wuthering Heights,” gives the audience the satisfaction of shouting “Heathcliffe!” en masse, but otherwise seems to be an odd choice to wind the concert up.  Still, it’s very strong overall, and I recommend it highly.

New UOGB Video

The DVD of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s triumphant performance at August’s BBC Proms is available for preorder at their site.  They’ll start shipping the discs on 3 December.  They’ve posted this audience-member video to entice you:

We’ve placed our order, of course.  Look for a review in this space, likely sometime after Christmas.

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.

The UOGB (or a piece of it) plays “I’m Gonna Be”

I’ve been looking for this clip for quite a while now.  The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (well, four members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and someone else) plays The Proclaimers‘ “I’m Gonna Be” on the BBC.

UPDATE: The “someone else” is Leisa Rea of “Adams & Rea.”