[10 July 2008]
The “Incredible Vickers Brothers” are Rob and Bob Vickers, and if you’re wondering how a set of brothers got two nicknames that are both short for Robert, you’d be right to wonder—the “brothers” are both Bob, known most recently as the original drummer of the California pop band the Orange Peels. So the band is a solo project in disguise—Bob Vickers is credited primarily with drums, bass, and such assorted other instruments as the glockenspiel, ukelele, and mellotron, while his fictional brother Rob takes up the lead vocal and guitar duties, along with piano, harmonica, organ, and mandolin.
Of course, nowhere in the promotional material is it mentioned that Rob and Bob are one person, and the fictional duo presents a writer with a bit of a dilemma—should this band be referred to as a “they” or a “he”? (For the purposes of this review, I’m just going to try to avoid the use of pronouns altogether and refer to the band by name.) Yes, it’s a silly question, but you get the sense that Vickers enjoys this kind of linguistic silliness—the Vickers Brothers’ album, Gallimaufry, takes its name from a little-used noun originally referring to a ragout or hash but which has come also to mean any kind of eclectic medley or hodgepodge of various items or styles. And “gallimaufry” is in fact quite a precise description of this album, as Vickers takes a circus ringleader’s approach to bringing together Beatles-esque melodies, jangly power pop, surf rock, bluegrass, and general Americana twang, all laced to each other with a Vaudevillian show-biz goofiness and linguistic and musical wit.
Take the album’s introductory track, “Blues for Frankie Valli”, an homage to the Four Season’s doo-wop via a bluegrass love song addressed to Valli’s Dawn. Vickers deftly avoids any stylistic cognitive dissonance that this could bring and instead gives us a breezy ballad that dances its way through references to the Four Season’s catalog with charm and wit:
Dawn, you better do what that song says to do
You better go away ‘cause I’m no good for you
Frankie Valli said it so you know it must be true.
I sat down and I had me a talk with his Four Seasons…
But they left me in the cold and I’ve been sitting out here freezing
They told me chasing you would only lead to frustration
Keep your life, they said, with its quiet desperation…
“She’s got you thinking things that your head can’t understand
It’s gonna bring you to your knees unless you walk like a man.”
“Blues for Frankie Valli” is a good introduction to Vicker’s songwriting voice, with its Randy Newman-esque wordplay and storytelling (though with considerably more brightness and cheer than Newman’s mordant irony). But the song’s Americana style is just one ring of Vickers’ songwriting circus, and the rest of the album takes the listener through a whirlwind tour of many more than three musical rings. Most of those styles have their roots in 1960s pop. For example, there’s “Things Slowly Change”, which pairs an “Eleanor Rigby” string line and backup vocal harmonies with “When I’m Sixty-Four”’s cheerful meditation on the passage of time. Or there’s “What She Does”, with its surf rock twang and Beach Boys multi-tracked vocal chorus.
But then there’s also album-closer “Record Collection Blues”, on which Vickers channels Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards, crooning and strumming through a scratchy old Victrola. Here, as on “Blues for Frankie Valli”, Vickers’ sonic references contrast with the story he sings—the song sounds lifted from the 1920s, until he starts cataloging the records the singer’s wife took with him when she left: Brian Wilson, Richard Thompson, Harry Nillson (just in the first verse). This tune is another that showcases Vicker’s lyrical wit (“The ELO was the first to go but she wasn’t finished yet / She took REM and XTC and the whole damn alphabet”) and has a bit more of the bite of Randy Newman (who, yes, is name-checked too). The singer sounds quite a bit more distraught at the loss of his music than the loss of his wife.
There is, of course, an element of gimmick to all of this, from the lyrical and stylistic name checking to the entire concept of Vicker’s fictional sibling. But the songwriting and production are so strong, and the album as a whole is relaxed enough, to never annoy the listener with its cleverness. Instead the listener can just smile when Vickers winks, and enjoy the whole Vaudevillian show.