[27 February 2008]
One of the more surreal moments I’ve experienced in the last year or so was seeing two adult men dressed in full 1920s period garb, smiling broadly and playing Big Buck Hunter in a dim-lit Brooklyn bar. I was later relieved to discover that, thankfully, I had not somehow walked into a bad music video, and that it was in fact The Two Man Gentlemen Band, a quick-witted bluegrass/swing act from Long Island with a penchant for taking episodes from US history and turning them into raunchy folk ditties.
Comprising the wry S. Andy Bean (banjo, kazoo, percussion, and vocals) and the sturdy Fuller Condon, AKA “The Councilman” (upright bass, kazoo, vocals), the Gentlemen have been taking their olde time show on the road since before the release of their eponymous 2005 debut. In 2006, they released their sophomore effort, the aptly titled Great Calamities, which included songs like “The Hindenburg Disaster” and “The War of Northern Aggression”. This month sees the unveiling of their third full-length to date, Heavy Petting.
Petting finds the Gents playing mostly up-tempo, jazz-inflected numbers that once again use subjects of US history (as well as popular recreation, food, and musical instruments) as extended metaphors for love, sex, and death.
Hearkening back to vaudeville and the comic song tradition, tunes like “William Howard Taft” and “They Can’t Prohibit Love” could easily have been written in the ‘20s or ‘30s, and, for the most part, it’s this masterful pastiche that makes The Two Man Gentlemen Band the riot that they are both onstage and on record.
“Dippin’ Sauce” and “When Your Lips Are Playing My Kazoo” are drenched in (rather obvious) sexual innuendo, while “The Big Strong Man” is a rendition of a traditional Irish song that tells of a Paul Bunyan/John Henry-type figure (“He drank all the water in the sea / and he walked all the way to Italy”). “On the Badminton Court” boasts the hilarious refrain, “You spoke vulgar language / Here’s my retort / Gonna smack your shuttlecock around that badminton court.” It’s a rousing bunch of tunes, the kind you can twirl a cane or tip a porkpie hat to.
On “The Square Root of Two”, Bean sings, “My love is like the square root of two / That’s a nerdy way to flirt but, oh, it’s true,” and this music is nerdy. Okay, maybe it’s not Weird Al, but a song like “William Howard Taft”, for instance, is definitely in the running for the kind of thing that a really awkward kid with a peach-fuzz moustache brings in to play for your high school history teacher on the day you study The Roarin’ ‘20s. The same might be said of the supremely cheesy “Unicycle Blues” (“You took my heart and my bicycle and you tore them both in two”), but no one who’s worth a second thought ever said being nerdy was a bad thing.
Changing tack, album closer “Newtown Creek”, is a finely crafted ballad that serves as moving proof that The Gentlemen can be serious when the mood strikes. Laying aside his usual breakneck whimsy and outside-the-carnival sense of humor, if only for a moment, Bean drawls soberly over a stately piano, “So I hurl myself into the deep / And I hold my breath until I fall asleep / The only girl I ever wanted to keep / Is lying at the bottom of Newtown Creek.”
Overall, Heavy Petting’s success lies in its being a refreshingly crude batch of Americana that buzzes with enough overtly intellectual humor and raucous energy to make even the coldest of hipsters crack a smile. It’s a record that’s completely unpretentious and, consequently, enormous fun.