The Remains Of Tom Lehrer
The Remains Of Tom Lehrer is a bit misleading — there is little that implicates that this is composed of leftovers or gap-fillers. Instead, this 3-CD box set (with extensive hardbound liner notes) compiles all — all — of Tom Lehrer’s musical output, including his two studio albums from the ’50s and one from the ’60s, a couple of live recordings, and a handful of sessions.
Those unfamiliar with Lehrer will find it difficult to appreciate his razor wit and playful delivery from the context of a review. These days, a man singing along with a solo piano comes with all manner of associated baggage, whether it makes you think of Billy Joel or some dissipated lounge act. Lehrer is closer to that party cut-up that can also pound the ivories like a maniac, singing, joking and downing copious amounts of alcohol without missing a single note. Lehrer’s musical talents are complemented by his astounding language skills and an eagle-eye view of society — his songs hardly sound dated, even thirty years after they were recorded.
Lehrer, a Harvard boy, stumbled into the limelight with Songs by Tom Lehrer in 1953, a bona-fide DIY hit recorded for $15 and self-released by Lehrer in his college days. The end of the decade saw More of Tom Lehrer and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” perhaps his most popular song. With rhymes like “it just takes a smidgen / to poison a pigeon” and “we’ll murder them all in laughter and merriment / except for the few we take home to experiment,” Lehrer not only featured mad rhymes, but enough attitude to raise hackles around the country, with not only “Pigeons” but anthems like “It Makes a Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go.” Lehrer also turns a cynical eye to love (“The Masochism Tango” and “She’s My Girl”), music (“Clementine,” “A Christmas Carol”), the humanities (“In Old Mexico,” “Oedipus Rex”) and the sciences (“The Elements” consists of the entire periodic table, as of 1959, sung to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Major General’s Song”).
Discs 1 and 2 in this set are nearly identical, with the second being live versions of the songs on the first, in nearly the same sequence. The third disc gathers together That Was The Year That Was (1965) with a set of alternate recordings from 1960, four songs which Lehrer wrote for The Electric Company and three new (1999) recordings. Worth noting here are “The New Math,” a musical introduction to alternate numeric systems, and “National Brotherhood Week,” which is truer now than it was in 1965.
This is a beautiful box set, complete and enhanced with fantastic liner notes (by Dr. Demento and Lehrer, with several photos and a reprinting of original liner notes. Since you’ll be hard-pressed to find these recordings outside the rare yard sale or used record store, this makes for a unique and convenient bit of American musical history.
Rhino Records, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025; http://www.rhino.com