November 30, 2014

Jewmongous - Taller Than Jesus

I was sitting in the yoga studio lobby this weekend, lamenting the crass commercialism of Black Friday and the pervasive Christmas vibe in the air, and musing "I'm going into my cave until December 26th". One of our students, of Jewish background, quipped "Welcome to the tribe". Helluva big laugh. So in spite of my deeply rooted Roman Catholic bona fides (which have involved at various times, alter serving, 12 years of catholic school, folk mass musician, CCD teacher, lector, lay Eucharistic minister, a father who served in the Knights of Columbus and as a deacon, and a marriage officiated by a bishop), I feel emotionally ready to talk about one of my NERFA finds - Sean Altman, aka Jewmongous, and his album Taller Than Jesus. 

I stumbled across Sean / Jewmongous purely by accident. Sean was running around the NERFA conference in a blue tee shirt and suspenders, with an "S" emblazoned on his chest (a la Godspell) although the S was embedded into a Star of David. He had a quad showcase slot, in a room that my friend Kate Callahan was playing, and I had decided that night to park it and watch all the acts rather than wander around. So glad I did.

I'm all in a favor of a folk comedy / novelty act - going way back to Nancy Tucker, Jay Mankita, Fred Eglesmith, Christine Lavin, and Cheryl Wheeler (when she is not making me cry). Bring it on. But this seemed a little over the edge, a little too "in your face" and I was a bit reluctant. I think I even stood up and moved to the back of the room - intending to give him a little listen before I snuck out.

I need not have worried. Sean Altman is an accomplished sonrwriter, purportedly the "grandfather of modern a cappela" through his work with Rockappela, and songwriting credits ranging from PBS Kids shows, Schoolhouse Rock, and Wendy's commercials. No schlock here. 

As it was, I stood in the back and laughed my ass off through a short 15 minute set that included Taller Than Jesus (playing off John Lennon's "Bigger than Jesus" mis-step) and They Tried to Kill Us. I wandered off smiling and humming. the next day, I caught Sean in the NERFA lunch room, thanked him for his set, and reported my Saul like conversion - and he shoved a CD in my hands (I was very consciously not soliciting music all weekend, but the few times it came my way organically, I was happy to accept)

I've spent some time listening this weekend, and the mirth and delight have continued. Each of the tracks on Taller Than Jesus, rooted in the fine tradition of the parody song pioneered by Weird Al Yankovic (and for the record, I was listening to Weird Al via Dr. Demento on late night FM radio in the late 70's, while working the overnight shift at McDonald's, long before he had a label or sold a record). The overall theme is Jewishness - either specific to the religion, personal experience, or general cultural Jewishness.

But the interesting aspect of the disk is that each track spotlights a musical genre and nails it. "What the Hell is Simchas Torah?" is straight on modern klezmer, right out of Brooklyn hipsterdom. But then it gets weird in a way that brings a smile. "Today I Am a Man" is 50's Do--wop, "Christian Baby Blood" is an Irish bar band drinking song (think Dropkick Murphys), there are homages to western movie themes, big band, broadway, tango / latin, 60s surf rock. "Too Jew For You" vibes Elvis Costello's "Miracle Man", "Jew for Jesus" lifts an opening riff from "Do You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star?". The whole album is like an aural "find a word" puzzle or "Where's Waldo" - each resonance or echo brings a smile, and the "familiar but can't place it" numbers drive one mad searching for a musical reference or touchstone.

The writing is witty and smart, the musicianship is professional and well-crafted.

As a recovering Catholic, yoga teaching, agnostic with Zen leanings who is a little too anti-social to run off with the Universalist-Unitarians, I'm not really collecting Jewish humor albums. But I'm sure gonna share this with all my friends with the tribe!  

And Sean Altman, going forward, I'm a fan!

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