Musician: Monk Turner (songwriter) and various singers and performers.
Recommended if you like: Allen Touissant, Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks, Randy Newman, modern retelling of Greek myths
Summary: Charming suburban rock opera with mythical overtones
Monk Turner is a talented and prolific songwriter who has glommed onto the “concept album” genre (producing about 25 concept albums so far). I wrote a long profile of Monk Turner a few years ago and have followed his recent releases over the years. A few years ago the concept was “Emergency” (imagining disaster in Los Angeles). More recently the concept was colors; each song was about a different color — and that includes a lot of obscure colors like fuchsia, cerulean, Zymenchlora (yes, it’s a color — I checked). (Check out my 6 word review of it). A central aspect to the concept album is that it lets the artist explore a variety of moods and styles within a certain theme. Turner mashes a lot of retro pop styles with contemporary instruments and idioms. All the albums have elements of 50s rock and 60s folk and funk, but they still feel “new.”
For this concept album, each song is sung by a different Greek god or goddess (but transplanted into an era of modern suburban angst).
My questions when approaching a Monk Turner concept is to ask: will individual songs stand out more than the concept itself? Is the melody decorating the lyrics or vice versa? Also, how much do the songs abide by traditional pop song formats (in terms of catchiness and production values)?
For this album, I feel that the overall concept stands out more than individual songs, that the lyrics drive the melodies (PS, they’re also hilarious!) and that the songs are quintessentially anti-pop; I don’t even think it would fall into the category of alternative (though there are certainly rock elements on the edges). In fact, the songs strike me as very theatrical — something which belongs onstage or (heaven forbid!) a Disney animation movie. To invent a category for this album, the first thing which comes to mind is offbeat suburban rock opera.
Turner wants to make the Greek gods recognizable to modern audiences, so he depicts them with modern personalities. We are supposed to sympathize with their perspectives and see a little bit of ourselves in them.
I had a lot of fun trying to recognize the essence of each Greek god in the song bearing their name. Sometimes the musical connection is tenuous though never forced. The Hermes song is about delivering a message from the gods; The Poseidon song adopts the stance of a young adult who feels that he has “missed the boat” in growing up and missing the opportunities of life. (This contrasts to the Artemis song which is about a woman who is a “lone hunter” who “would rather be stuck with Hades than tied down with a crying baby.”) Not only do the singers really capture the archetypal emotion of each god, both lyrics and the instrumentation capture the mythological essence with humor and sympathy.
In “Bad Luck”, Hephaestus sings with remorse. The song (performed by Chris Warrior) begins as a plaintive country song, then transforms into a kind of soul duet with organ backing (where a distant female voice — Aphrodite coos light retorts). In “But then I got Married” (sung with a humorous touch by Christine Gengaro), Hera laments how being married was much less glamorous than she expected:
My life was full of smiles
Until I walked down the aisle
Now all I want to do is die
Ohh I used to be so carefree
Sipping wine with the bourgeoisie
But then I got married
Athena’s song “A strong foundation” is a warm and gentle ballad about the benefits of moderation and having realistic dreams. (It has the warmth of a James Taylor or Carol King song). Hades’ “It’s a wicked life” (my personal fave) is a slow/moody song reminsicent of Leonard Cohen. Probably the most provocative and fascinating song is the Hermes song “You Won’t Go with a God”about spiritual abandonment:
Do you think I deceive you?
Do you think this is all a myth?
Are you having a break through?
Or are you falling into an abyss?
You won’t go with a god
Go with a god
In general the melodies remain upbeat and fast even though the lyrics themselves are pretty cynical. This is particularly true about the Ares song (“I’ll destroy everything”). Melodically this song seems less dark than bombastic — like a cartoon villian in a Broadway musical (ably sung by Jacke Karashae who also sang that brilliant and gleeful song “The Illuminated Self” on Kaleidoscope“). All the performances are strong and the singers all give a unique take on each god’s personality. If I could single out two incredible performances, it would be the elegiac Hermes song (sung by Princess Frank) and Athena’s song about “A Strong Foundation” (sung with warmth and care by Malynda Hale).
It’s a little unusual that a songwriter like Monk Turner would lead a collaborative studio project like this, especially one with so many outstanding performers. (Allen Touissant and Gamble and Huff are two examples which came to mind).
Another very unusual thing about this album is that there are “video liner notes” on youtube about each individual song (View the playlist). I resisted watching them before writing this review, but after the review was essentially finished, my curiosity got the better of me and I ended up watching them all. Nowadays artists are expected to expose the creativity process to the online audience (so it can be retweeted and linked to on social media to generate interest). But Turner takes it one step further and puts together funny vids which describe the making of each song from inception to production. We get to hear how Monk Turner circulated demos of his music to friends and used their feedback to improve the songs. We also are treated to “melodic re-enactments” where Turner returns to the locale where he received musical inspiration or overcame a creative roadblock. In a few cases Turner reveals obscure aspects of the Greek myths that inspired him to write the song. These video liner notes also include cameos from performers who talk about how they helped shape final production. I guess these video liner notes add to the album and help the audience appreciate the lyrics. They certainly helped me to notice and appreciate certain aspects to individual songs. On the other hand I’d hate to imagine a future where every produced song needs to have a “making of” video associated with it in order to become more widely known. I recommend that listeners give the “making of” videos a look only after you’ve had ample time to process the song on your own so your impressions of the song won’t be shaped (and limited) too strongly by the artist’s conceptions.
Except for maybe the Hades song, none of the songs grabbed me at first, but each listen brings additional rewards (appreciating the subtleties both of lyrics and the musical arrangements). All the songs (even the deep ones) make for fun and light-hearted listening; they sound good on a playlist (and stand out perfectly well on their own). But they might shine even more in some kind of theatrical setting where the audience pays more attention to character and lyrics. Songs like “Let Me Heal You (Apollo’s Song)” are obvious candidates for musical theatre — taking advantage of all the funny lyrics — and to certain extent, the video liner notes seem almost to anticipate this possibility (with humorous cutaways).
It’s unusual for a pop music album to focus on portraying different characters (you’d probably have to go back to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to find a successful example). It’s definitely pushing boundaries. Like Persephone’s partial betrayal of her family by eating pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, I have to wonder whether Turner’s instincts are pulling him away from the bright world of pop music and dragging him down into the fiery underworld of musical theatre.