Playing the classics live before a studio audience, Bobby Conn and the Glass Gypsies play greasy glam-rock ditties with an operatic sensibility and a biting wit. They take their music down into deep, dark, and dirty places, celebrating their bad taste and debauchery with an effervescent glee. Conn and company have a sense of theatricality and drama, but they are more than just show. The talented musicians create all kinds of sonic sound effects to decorate Conn’s clever, mocking lyrics about the sexually debauched and politically materialistic society in which we live.
For example, Conn begins his seductive critique of America’s foreign policy (“We Come in Peace”) by sweetly crooning the word “Success”. Conn emphasizes the hard consonant so that it sounds like “Suck-sess”. His sarcasm is clear before he gets to the rest of the stanza: “G-d’s on our side, / We know we are right, / Come to our side”. The musical accompaniment sounds like a carnival with a swirling fiddle, hook laden guitar riffs, sing-song keyboard rhythms, thumping bass, and rollicking drum beats. The instrumentation comments on and adds depth to Conn’s vibrant vocalizations.
Bandleader Conn enjoys a reputation as an energetic and charismatic performer, but his recordings have been highly produced and polished studio releases. That’s one reason Conn decided to make a live album, to give evidence of his talents to those who have never had the chance to witness his ability as an entertainer. Conn and the Glass Gypsies new disc also functions as a greatest hits collection for the uninitiated. These aren’t hits in the traditional sense — the indie artist Conn doesn’t sell enough discs for these tracks to be called such — but as the title Live Classics Vol. 1 indicates, these cuts are the standout songs made popular from his live performances over the past decade. Conn and his band recently recorded these songs before a small, studio audience over a two-day period rather than using previously taped tracks from earlier shows. This gives the record a fresh and unified sensibility, even if the latter is somewhat artificial. The disc contains someone (it’s not clear if it’s Conn or somebody else) urging the crowd to cheer as if they just heard the best song ever and alternately to boo as if they’ve just heard a terrible piece of crap so that the engineers can add these sound reactions to the final mix. The disc contains two bonus videos, one of which (“Home Sweet Home”) features live footage from the recording session. Conn and company wear revealing silver lame pinafores and intimately prance around a slightly stunned audience, who seem unsure as to how they are supposed to react to Conn’s passionate delivery.
Conn and the Glass Gypsies have wild imaginations. Their songs go all over the place, musically and lyrically. It’s not uncommon for a tune to contain elements of doo-wop, old skool funk, ambient electronic music, nu-metal power chords, classic pop-rock hooks, and spaced-out fusion jazz within a melodramatic, glam rock framework. The band is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, made up of diverse parts that seem unlikely to fit together but function well collectively for just that very reason. Conn has them play off each other’s differences to full effect, augmenting his manic liveliness. While Conn directs them to perform in a variety of musical fashions to fit the needs of his songs, certain stylistic elements are especially noteworthy. Lead guitarist Sledd powerfully slashes the steel strings like a hard rock monster. Conn’s life-mate Monica BouBou plays a swooping electric jazz violin as if she were in the Mahavishnu Orchestra circa 1972. Pearly Sweets hits the keyboards lounge-lizard style with slimy, sweet fingerings. Colby Starck never stops hammering the drums with steady, rolling beats complemented by Dallas Cooper’s throbbing bass lines.
Conn frequently sings in a high-pitched voice that makes him sound as if he’s in a constant state of excitement and makes him appear more than a little unbalanced. This fits the bizarre personae who narrate his strange songs. Consider the adolescent fantasy “Angels”, whose teenage protagonist tries hard to get laid at a party but is thwarted by the distraction of a small-town gay kid who has decided to kill himself at the event. The narrator’s frustration comically functions to illustrate the absurdity of the conventional wisdom of assholes who blame homosexuals for the gross sexualization of modern day life — you know, the conservative agenda that chastises gay people for ruining “normal” sex for the rest of us.
Other targets include the getting-something-for-nothing American dream in tunes like “Baby Man”, that have the protagonist celebrating the fact that his girlfriend got a job so now he can mooch off her earnings. Or the cynicism of the adage that if one works hard, one will succeed in “Never Get Ahead”, with its chorus of “You’ll never get ahead, / Giving head to the man” sung over BouBou’s chicken-scratchin’ fiddle licks. There are political commentaries, such as “United Nations”, which parodies the right-wing view of that international body; as Conn straightforwardly declares, the “United Nations is Satan”. Conn even knocks those who state the sixties were the worst decade (“Axis ’67 Part 2”) in our national history, or believe our world on the brink of apocalypse (“Rise Up”). The latter contains snatches of both the bugle call “Reveille” and the Jackson Five’s “ABC” on fiddle to humorously comment on the news as a harbinger of the end of the world for true believers in search of signs — recalling the military incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Michael Jackson trial.
Live Classics Vol. 1 displays Conn’s wit and anger to full effect by having him put on the mask of entertainer. The Glass Gypsies musically point to his affectations as if he’s a sideshow freak. But what they are both really doing are holding up a fun house to ourselves and revealing the grotesque world in which we live.