The following story was reprinted from the July edition of the digital magazine Byte Me.
Album Review: Frozen Novelties
Artist: Boyce Thompson
2.5 stars out of 5
It’s hard to know what to think about the 24th self-produced album by songwriter/singer Boyce Thompson. But I’ll tell you what the pushy sales side of my organization wants me to think, after Thompson’s new label, Meglomania, took out spread ads in our digital magazine — they want me to say it rocks. After repeated listens with our sales manager Clive Richards holding a proverbial gun to my headphone-protected head, I can’t honestly give the album much praise. I’d have to say that it’s at best half bad. And that may be high praise.
Why the snooty review? Because this time out the self-loathing artist seems unwittingly entangled in the very time warp he lampoons in the collection’s one somewhat redeeming song, Nineteen Seventies Straight Jacket, co-written with sometimes band mate Chris Voelker. Listening to the disjointed album, I feel the same way the protagonist must feel when he sings:
Someone pass the code
I can’t seem to crack it
I’ll have to keep wearing that
Nineteen seventies straight jacket
Thompson appears ensnared in this immobilizing device when he sings most songs on Frozen Novelties. In characteristic fashion, it’s hard to tell whether Thompson is paying homage to, or making fun of, the musical genres he covers. This reviewer would just rather not make the effort to understand. Taint Love, for instance, finds Thompson in a Chuck Berry groove writing about pubescent romance:
That’s what all the grown-ups say
But it’s growing stronger everyday
Between a rock and a hard place
Their love has gone to hide
Taint love but its hard to decide
Questionable taste pervades the self-produced album, perhaps a result of Thompson’s insistence on playing all the instruments. The lack of a proper peer filter may explain an unwise choice to recast the Weepie’s moody self-absorbed The World Spins Madly On as a sprightly bluegrass ditty. And Thompson may be the only one who hears the potential for an uptempo folk song with innumerable passing chords in Warren Zevon’s bleak anthem Indifference of Heaven.
The New Christie Minstrels are probably turning over in their graves.
The wide variety of musical styles on this album is both mildly interesting and utterly confusing. It sounds as though the “artist” may have been working on two dramatically different albums simultaneously and then, at the last moment, fearing neither would pass muster, combined the “best” material from both to produce one schizoid release.
To get answers to questions such as this, we interviewed the aging folk rocker recently at Urban Barbecue, where he was enjoying a lunch of brisket, greens, macaroni and cheese, and unsweetened ice tea. We could have lunched anywhere — Byte Me was picking up the bill — but Thompson chose this dive to meet. He was wearing sandals. A morsel of his dinner from the night before hung from the zipper of his fleece.
This new album was released on the Meglomania label. Why the switch from your long-standing label, Plug Nickel?
Frankly, the people at Plug Nickel were starting to get on my nerves. They insisted that other musicians perform on my records. They asked me to do an album of covers because they said after nearly 50 years of writing my own material, it was clear that no one wanted to buy it. At about that time, the people at Meglomania reached out to me with a deal I couldn’t refuse. They wanted me to record and sing just my own songs and play all the instruments. They noted that I was improving on the mandolin and banjo. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. They are all about me, and I mean that in a good sense.
It looks as though you play all the instruments on the album. But despite your free license you included some covers. How come? Are you selling out?
Well, I wanted to show how it’s possible to so completely recast a song written by another person that listeners will think it was written by you. That’s a goal that I’ve always had with my music, all the way back to my days with The Tones, when we recorded Truck Stop Katie and Something Psychological. Back then, of course, the idea was to ridicule an inane song. These days I’m just trying to show the song’s potential to be recast, to make it mine, if you will. Meglomania was 100 percent behind me in that effort.
I see. Let me ask you this, When you write some of these songs — Do the Stork jumps immediately to mind — does it ever cross your mind that no one would ever want to hear it?
Oh, yes. All the time. But that was a song that had to be written. When I was young, people really liked songs about dance crazes — The Twist, The Hitchhiker, and so on. My younger son Ethan invented The Stork when he was seven or eight. He used to pull his underwear up to his nipples and dance around the living room with his neck craned. Sometimes he’d pretend that he was carrying a baby in a diaper from his mouth. He could have started a new dance sensation, just like the protagonist in the song. But American Bandstand and other shows like it weren’t on the air in the late 1990s.
That’s tragic. It seems like some of your songs — Taint Love, for instance — cross a line that really shouldn’t be crossed. What on earth was the inspiration for that song?
Well, it was really just an exercise in anthropology. Many social scientists have noted that hormones in McDonald’s hamburgers is causing youngsters to mature earlier. I wanted to call attention to the problem this creates — 11 and 12 year olds getting the Jones. I saw this first hand when my sons were growing up. There was this one kid in sixth grade who was just so in love with a fox in the class. He had that hound-dog look. He’d follow her around, try to bump into her accidentally. I don’t think there’s anything sweeter, and perhaps more dangerous, than being in love before you know what love is. But it creates myriad social problems in serious need of rectification, like when you can’t separate the two, and it’s pretty obvious where the mutual affection might lead. It’s a major unspoken parental concern these days. I needed to call attention to it. Also, I think that sixth-grader is a model in New York today.
This album sounds like two albums. Did it initially start out that way?
Did you think that mixing bluegrass with hard rock might drive away some listeners?
I did. But then I realized no one would listen to it anyway.
For all it’s terribleness, the album does have a few moments. I’d say that High School Reunion, for instance, isn’t bad, though I wouldn’t say it’s that good. Is it autobiographical?
Sorta yes, sorta no. It’s a work of fiction, but it’s loosely based on my experience at my 40th high school reunion. I particularly like the lines:
When the committee found me
I didn’t know what to think
I read the invite over
And grabbed another drink
I’m not the kid of guy
Who lives in the past
My memories are foggy
They weren’t meant to last
Unlike the protagonist in the song, I didn’t get lucky at my reunion. I wasn’t looking to get lucky either. I’m happily married to my wife of nearly 30 years, though she didn’t join me at the reunion. I didn’t go to hers either.
The name for the album, Frozen Novelties, is an obvious reference to novelty songs from another era. Do you still listen to albums by Alan Sherman, Tom Lehrer, and the like?
No, I don’t, and I never did. While I appreciate that they were trying to make a joke at the expense of musical forms, I think that for the most part it was bubblegum music. They were superficial impostors. There was no bite. I’d call Katie Lee a real artist. Her album, Songs of Couch and Consultation, had a major influence on me. I found an old scratched up copy in a pile of records at a friend’s cabin where I used to stay from time to time during my college years. Songs like Hush Little Sibling and Schizophrenic Moon had a major influence on me. They respect and enhance the musical genre at the same time they mock it. And the musicianship is better than the records they mock. The result is bleak in a satisfying way. Of course when I came up with the name for the album, I was also thinking of a Good Humor truck.
Your music seems to be growing more serious as you age. On this new album, you write sincerely about some mature themes — the aftermath of romantic destiny, a war no one has thought about for years, an attractive librarian. What’s up with that?
My sensibilities have weakened with age. The sharp edge of cynicism that got me in so much trouble in my teenage years has been dulled by a creeping recognition that a few other things may matter — like love, friendship, and family. I admit that I have allowed those values to partially cloud my musical vision in recent years. But die-hard fans — Danny Williams may be my only one — should rest assured that my skeptical spirit will never die. I’m hard at work on my next album, Songs to Play at My Funeral. It’s part two of what I consider to be a suite that began with Songs No One Will Hear.