J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher
Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies
Standard Recording Company
Who would have thought that Teddy Roosevelt would go Emo? Or that William McKinley’s administration would be best summed up from the viewpoint of his marginally sane assassin? Odd impressions like that flow from this ambitious and unexpected project, “A Musical and Sadly Hilarious History of the American Presidency,” conceived and executed by J. Matthew Gerken (Nice Monster), Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher (Above The Orange Trees). These songs began as a whim in response to the “February Album Writing Month” (write a song a day for 28 days, www.fawm.org.) The authors regarded the project as “too interesting to leave in the demo stage” so they polished it up and turned it into saleable MP3’s and CD’s.
The music is slow and sonorous, with lyrics that don’t always connect to the respective President — Tyler’s “In Hindsight” considers death in a folk slow dance style, “Helicopters over Oakland” ties to Ulysses S. Grant’s light jazz-influenced administration through allusions to a post war society, and the prayer-like “Through the Night” shows George W. Bush in an imagined repent manner. None of these 43 songs is a get up and boogie dance number, nor the sort of Cole Porter “Hum it out to the parking lot” musical theater show tune. Rather, there is a dark melancholy hanging over the project, a sense of navel gazing and consideration that maybe all the glorious campaign promises, diplomatic appointments, wars, and treaties had little effect on anything. Take Chester Arthur’s one song, the particularly gloomy, “Epitome of Dignity” — his presidency was plagued by Clinton-esque scandal and drama, and to go by this song, it hurt him deeply.
It’s hard to think of where this collection of music fits on the old iPod. These songs might back up a good Ken Burns style documentary or fit into an ironically charged multimedia project of some sort, but its hard to imagine listening to this all the way through. The music is competent, but frankly not very engaging. The enigmatic lyrics don’t clarify, and if anything the business of figuring out how each song relates to its president is almost a puzzle to be played with Wikipedia and a stack of presidential biographies. If you pick up the physical copy, there’s an accompanying booklet that might help, but you shouldn’t need a decoder ring to enjoy music. That’s for political junkies and conspiracy theorists.