The Tiger Lillies – Soho Theatre (2007)

When stumbling across new bands with extensive discographies I find it’s a good strategy to turn to live albums and, sometimes, “best of” records, to get “the general idea” as it were. The Tiger Lillies have been around since the late ’80s and I’ve only just started listening to them, so this album really hit the spot. In more ways than one – their studio records are very intense affairs as far as I’ve seen, very eloquent and militant, tightly ascribed to a certain concept. Things seem to lighten up live, just a bit, enough for a newcomer to be able to get accustomed to their very distinctive style.

While I can’t find an answer to the question “why is the power trio such a generally amazing band formula?”, I’m sure glad this unwritten rule of pop music works so well in their case. The Tiger Lillies have a chemistry which surpasses the realm of musical excellence and steps forth boldly into the realm of theatrical performance. Indeed, this band walks the line between musicianship and the actor’s art with every song, and obviously every live performance. “Brechtian punk cabaret” might be a term I first heard associated with The Dresden Dolls, but these guys have been doing it at least ten years before that, and from this perspective it’s no surprise whatsoever that bands like Evelyn Evelyn, The Dresden Dolls, Harlequin Jones and so on have always sounded like they have their roots firmly planted in something quite fertile. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, in this niche genre, The Tiger Lillies are the missing link.

Frank Zappa’s entire career, it seems to me, was based around the question “does humor belong in music?”. While he has never quite managed to convince me that it does, The Tiger Lillies do, unquestionably. Parody, maybe not. Theatrical satire, yes, yes, yes, so much yes! And I’ve never heard better satire than this. It’s simultaneously base and lofty, shocking on a visceral level and enticing on an intellectual one. The circus act style they employ is carried out flawlessly by the terribly versatile Martyn Jacques, with his falsetto contra-tenor voice, descending into a furious version of Tom Waits’ growls on certain songs, always perfectly suited either for highlighting the themes, either by contrast or highlight. There’s such control and ability here, such lovely awareness of the lyrics’ potential and elegant fulfillment of it I can’t help but think of this man as an actor, just as much as a musician.

The band doesn’t shy away from melodrama, which I find refreshing, because they somehow manage to keep it classy, with just enough nostalgia added in the melodies to make it sound perfectly vintage. When Muse goes into that territory, for example, the sentimental deluge is a bit off-putting. In The Tiger Lillies’ case, it’s amusing and enticing, managing to keep the experience of the song cathartic rather than shifting the accent to pure irony or over-the-top mush.

Martyn’s songs are often times based on lyrics by Brecht on this album, and I believe it takes a certain type of person to feel inspired by Brecht. The brechtian acting method seems to me one of the most difficult to approach, and the way the band manages to sing it, while actually applying it on stage in their shows is just fantastic to watch and to enjoy. Underneath the delivered text, there’s a current of sentiment, not the other way around. This distance is highly beneficial to the music and it’s what I acutely feel is lacking in most of the operatic and cabaret productions and bands I’ve seen or heard. There’s a balance here which stems from terrific talent and years of experience. Even though the waltzing and polka style rhythms are so easily associated with “the carnival” as a meme, The Tiger Lillies seem to always find a way to keep it fresh and interesting. Now, of course, I’m terribly biased, since I love everything to do with this archetype – the clown, the puppet, the mime, the joker (all aspects of the same thing after all, no?). But I really do believe The Tiger Lillies are embodying these successive facets of the eternal “court jester” with formidable skill.

The music itself, as I said, is quite cathartic, at least for me, which makes it an empowering and uplifting experience, in spite of the often sad themes and melodies. There’s an uncomplicated grace about the piano work, perfectly sharing a vibe with the voice, discreetly sustained by the double bass and the delicate drum work, a grace which seems to be viral, at least for me. Keep in mind though, I’m walking into almost virgin territory here, since I very rarely enjoy bands so reliant on the lyrics, which is a testament to the great influence my dear friends have on me.

I hope you enjoy The Tiger Lillies melancholy musings these cold, dreary November night, and, by all means, drop me a line if you do. Or if you don’t. Either way, I’m hungry for communication. Share your suggestions for future posts and your feedback on previous ones, if you feel so inclined. I’m open to dialogue, approximately 24/7, given my horribly mangled sleeping schedule. See you tomorrow!

3 thoughts on “The Tiger Lillies – Soho Theatre (2007)

  1. Oh, you and your skepticism of Zappa, making me grind my teeth :))) But otherwise I completely agree with the Brecht analogy and find it fascinating. I could hear it after you said it, as usual, and then I figured only today I was being disappointed by not enough distance on the behalf of some chick singing an otherwise engaging song. I could not pinpoint exactly what was wrong and now I can. And I think I will listen to the Tiger Lillies a bit more.

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