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(Photo: Paul Zollo)
HAVING BEEN A FAN of this remarkable band for several years, I expected something great from them. But this is beyond expectations. The Fuxedos’ self-titled debut is one of the most audaciously inventive albums of all time. Just the version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” should earn them their own permanent gallery in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (although I suspect Cleveland might have issues with the band’s moniker). This is music both visionary and visceral, both hilarious and very serious, and it’s welcome now more than ever in this instant-message sensibility of modern lives, where people seem incapable of attending to anything that takes more time than a text or tweet. Here’s an album that is the evident consequence of vast and inspired studio hours, the kind of exhaustive craft pored into Beatles records as well as those by Brian Wilson, Steely Dan and Frank Zappa. A spirit of wildness permeates the proceedings, but it’s underpinned by a richly dimensional musical complexity. Yes. This is about passion.
First time I saw the Fuxedos live in Hollywood – in a now defunct vaudeville series– it was a revelation – amongst snake charmers, burlesques babes, chanteuses, comics and smirky magicians come the Fuxedos – led by a fireball of operatic rock and roll showmanship, style, and genuine hilarity named Danny Shorago. Who knew something this smart, this funny, this hilarious – all set against sparklingly strains of rock-jazz-lounge-exotica – existed right here in Los Angeles? Though certain streams of brilliantly odd and ambitious songs seemed to have vanished ages past with the losses of Zappa and Beefheart, in the Fuxedos this spirit still lives. A Zappa-inspired ironic demeanor permeates their music, which – like his – are often hilarious and serious at the same time, wedding sardonic and surreal lyrics to viscerally virtuosic music.
Danny Shorago is the lead singer and guiding spirit of the band. Onstage, he’s a wonder to behold, fusing soulfully fluid James Brown-like dance moves, a whirling and grinding dervish in a dizzy and surreal array of donned masks, hats, flags, guns, faux farm animals and more. In any one song comes a virtual encyclopedia of entertainment guises, from silent movie schtick to post-modern Goth bleakness to sham lounge lizard to heavy metal dude and beyond, all in the space of one song. The band plays tightly rendered and multi-tempo music with abrupt time shifts perfectly connected to his every movie. And the man is a dazzling dancer – with strands of Jagger, James Brown and MJ merged with Bill Murray, Red Skelton, Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce.
So when I heard the band was in the studio recording their debut disc, I worried that they’d never be able to attain on record the unchained fervor and comic spark of their live shows, which rely heavily on visuals, live energy, and the spontaneous hilarity and brilliance of Danny. I was hoping for maybe just a fairly close facsimile of a live show – hopefully sans distortion. What I got instead is phenomenal – an album as infectiously inventive and wildly unpredictable in its production and studio craft as the band’s live onstage performances. It evokes the spirit of Zappa in a multitude of ways, not the least of which is that the comic abandon of live shows was always anchored in immaculately tight and virtuosic musicianship by the band. Like Zappa also, the music of the Fuxedos is groove-based – like any good rock and roll band – only their grooves constantly shift in unexpected ways.
But this is so much more. Because like Zappa — who presented in concert an astounding blend of virtuosic rock and humor, and then left to his devices in the studio, he took both dynamics – music and humor – even farther – Danny and the Fuxes have created something in the studio as intense as their live shows, but quite different. Produced and arranged by Shorago with Wes Styles, it’s a record that supplants the manic visuals with the full blossom of the band’s great musicianship; the self-generated inspiration of live performance blossoming instead into great studio inventiveness. Onstage there’s an ongoing clash – albeit an amiably intentional one – between Shorago’s unbroken theatrics and the earnest musicianship of the band. This is equaled out on the CD, where the music comes first. Like The Beatles, who poured the full force of their ingenuity into recording when they stopped performing live, exploring all the facets of multi-track recording and inventing new ones, Danny and company have come up with brand-new and invigorating ways to present their songs.
And like Zappa, Shorago surrounds himself with musicians of the highest caliber. Drummer Ryan Brown shines here, as he does live, in his fluidly seamless shapeshifting of grooves, often several times within a song, and the solid, muscular soul of his playing. Like Charlie Watts, he’s a powerhouse rock drummer with the finesse of a jazzman, bringing in remarkable nuance while also being the engine for this ship. Multi-horn man Alex Budman, a prodigious jazz saxophonist who also adds flute and clarinet to the mix, lends explicit dynamism to each track, and like Brown is a rock player with the nuanced complexities of jazz. And Wes Styles, who plays all the guitars here plus some sitar, is an astounding guitarist who plays dazzling and often ferocious leads as well as orchestral rhythm parts. Add to that the excellent Steve Charouhas on bass – as well as Dan Andrews on sousaphone, Matt Lebofsky on keyboards and more – and you have an ensemble with evidently boundless possibilities. All of which Shorago explores and exploits with devilish flair.
The history of popular music from about 1956 to the present is surveyed in the most astounding rendition of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” ever recorded. Crazy purists might even find it scandalous, and I wish they did to the extent of massive CD burnings as few things are better for record sales (something the lads from Liverpool understood themselves). Live, this is hilarious and great, taking the famous record through about twenty different musical genres, each completely committed. But here in the studio, they’re able to completely produce each genre segment with delightful fidelity. Starting close to the bouncy pop groove of the original they soon veer wildly off track into a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through popular music genres from about 1964 forward and backwards. Before the end of the first verse it ignites into speed metal and from there punk, power stutter, reggae, goth-metal, expansive “Revolution #9”-like demonic collage, Johnny Cash-like country, and Brubeck jazz-swing. It’s dizzying and crazy, and like a good rollercoaster, there’s nothing you want more when it’s over than to get back on.
This is an album designed to last. Unlike mucho musical confection we find littered throughout our culture, meant for fast food consumption and with the half-like of a gnat, this is a journey of symphonic discovery. This isn’t background music, though I guess it could serve as background music if you work in a bordello run by carneys, perhaps, or at the Nixon library (where the Fuxes have performed on several occasions). This is a rocket-ship shot directly into the heart of surrealism, in a world where Mickey Mouse is suspect while both Scooby & Scrappy-Doo exist within a milkshake. But examining these topics is like the countless Zappa reviews that would share only his words, without touching on the divine complexity of his music. This is a movie that needs to be seen to be understood, an experience that on the surface sings of the strange, mixing as it does assorted nuns with robot vampire wombats, cartoons, cephalopods, cowboys and more. It’s a little Fellini, a little Lynch, a little Lenny Bruce by way of Perry Como, resting at last on the odd figure of Mimsy, a frightened little girl in party dress and hat who represents the scared child in us all, the child alone in a world of ever-increasing madness, clinging to the frail hope of a little melody – a tiny portion of order inside chaos.
So if you’ve been looking for something new and musical that can make sense of the ever-shifting, ever-expanding panoply of too much of everything at once and not enough time to take it in, look no further. You need this album. And not just one song. You need the whole album. And if the Fuxes come to your town – you might not want to tell you mother. Or even your husband or your wife. But get there. You won’t be sorry.
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