Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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There has never been anything like the Comedian Harmonists, just as there has never been anything like Weimar Germany. This Berlin-based sextet, five singers and a pianist, got together in 1927 with the idea of emulating the American vocal group the Revelers, and quickly surpassed them. Before the Nazis drove the three Jewish members into exile in 1934, they were the toasts of Europe, synthesizing barbershop hail-fellow-well-met with the fanatical accuracy of *Lieder* singing and classically schooled harmonies with African American swing--a version of Ellington's Creole Love Call in which the voices imitate instruments is a star attraction on Comedian Harmonists (Hannibal), their first U.S. collection. Seven decades later, these 14 tracks--which include such American standards as Tea for Two and Night and Day as well as German songs that fit right in--may seem overly decorous. But listen and you'll find out that they were truly comedians as well as harmonists--on one tune, they gargle in tune and time. They valued beauty, but they were never reverent about it. No wonder Goebbels couldn't abide them.

Stephin Merritt is a funny-nasty guy with a compulsion to write songs and a reluctance to sing them, as you'll understand when you hear his deep, inexpressive voice. Not that his inexpressiveness isn't to the point. Although Merritt almost always writes in the first person, he almost never writes about himself. He just likes catchy tunes and silly rhymes--"flesh" and "Ganesh," say, or "gently" and "Bentley." On 69 Love Songs (Merge) he outdoes himself for three CDs--he had to be talked out of going for 100. You can buy the discs separately (start with #1--he did), but since the real pleasure of this endlessly meaningless tour de force is reveling in its excess, I suggest springing for the whole thing. You'll be laughing, and humming, for weeks.

Playboy, Sept. 1999

Aug. 1999 Oct. 1999