Reviews

The Lemon Twigs Have Written a Rites of Passage Musical About a Chimp

Photo: Autumn de Wilde / Courtesy of 4AD

On Go to School, the Lemon Twigs have taken a lot of what made the first part of the 1970's vibrant and colorful and fascinating and applied those things to a contemporary work.

Go to School
The Lemon Twigs

4AD

24 August 2018

Just have a quick look at the calendar for me, please… can you confirm that it's 2018, not 1974?

Almost everything about the Lemon Twigs latest album Go to School is preposterous. For a start, it's a concept album. They're pretty risible, right? This one is about a monkey (stay with me here) adopted by a childless couple and raised as a human boy. Of course, he's bullied at school, and he's rejected by his one true love, resulting in a tragic ending to the story. Sorry, no spoilers here. To add to the mania of the whole thing, it sounds like it was recorded in an analog studio, in the early 1970s and all the songs were written by Richard O'Brien as a follow up to The Rocky Horror Show.

Still with me? Good.

In reality, this is the follow-up to Do Hollywood, the majestic 2016 release by the band – basically brothers Michael and Brian D'Addario. Instead of getting all antsy about having to follow up a great record, they decided to write a musical and get Todd Rundgren and Big Star's Jody Stephens involved. So they did. To limber up for the recording, they listened to nothing but Oklahoma, The King and I and A Little Night Music. Listening to Go to School, it's obvious that at least one of them snuck a copy of Something Anything and Radio City onto the record player at some stage. The result sounds like Jellyfish, backed by the Boston Pops, performing Tommy. I told you it was preposterous.

The album veers from Broadway musical sound-alikes like "Wonderin' Ways" to "Never Know", a straight-up pop-rock tune. Well, as straight up as a song where Todd Rundgren and Susan Hall sing along with their adopted son, who's a chimp, can be. The striking thing about the whole package is that it never sounds as if the Lemon Twigs are just playing at it. This doesn't sound "like" a musical – it is a musical. All the appropriate vamps are present and correct, and the horns, woodwinds, and strings have been arranged beautifully. Only once does the project veer close to collapsing under its own weight – on "Born Wrong/Heart Song" the D'Addario's almost slip into pastiche, but it's followed by the sumptuous pop of "The Fire" and everything is lovely again.

The D'Addarios fandom spills over in some very appealing ways. "Queen of My School" would have been a standout track on either of the first two Big Star albums if it had been written a smidgeon before 2018. The vocal line is pure Chilton, and the trebly, Stratocaster sound is an uncanny likeness. Wisely, they didn't ask Jody Stephens to play on that as well as "The Student Becomes the Teacher" or he might have got his lawyer on the phone in the middle of a drum roll. The Lemon Twigs are huge admirers of Todd Rundgren, and his early 1970s output is a template for many of the songs here, especially in the way the choral vocals are arranged. In another tip of the hat to Todd, "Rock Dreams" threatens to turn into something that should have been on Bat Out of Hell, but swerves to safety at the last minute. Bits of the album (especially "Home of the Heart (The Woods)") sound like Paul Williams' masterful score for Bugsy Malone. That's not a comparison you can make too often in modern popular music.

We shouldn't be too surprised that Go to School has turned into something theatrical. Both of the brothers were child actors. Brian had appeared in a Broadway production of The Little Mermaid, while Michael performed in Coast of Utopia and All My Sons. Someone is probably writing a treatment for a Broadway production of this, even as I write. Jack Black will be the father, Cher will play mother and Shane the Chimp will be played by Kit Harington, with vocals by Josh Groban. It'll probably be horrible, but at least the tunes will be good.

Go to School could easily have fallen into kitsch pastiche. Some 1970s nostalgia for millennials. Instead, it's turned out to be a solid and accomplished piece of work which reaches its ambitious goal. There's no harm in looking backward as long as you don't become a slave to the past. The Lemon Twigs have taken a lot of what made the first part of the 1970's vibrant and colorful and fascinating and applied those things to a contemporary work. The results are bizarre and at times a little confusing, but it's a unique piece of work, beautifully written, with a jewelers eye for detail. We all thought that "rock opera" about the blind, dumb and deaf kid that played arcade games all day long was weird, but that turned out all right didn't it?

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