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Music Review: Harry Shearer – Can’t Take a Hint

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One thing distinguishing Harry Shearer’s satirical songs from those of many other musical humorists is the lavish production in which his wry commentary has been set. So the musicianship on his upcoming new release Can’t Take a Hint should surprise no one familiar with Shearer’s past work in This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, or PBS radio’s Le Show. Still, the involvement of some of the folks on this release does show Shearer is upping his game, at least in terms of adding new collaborators to his performances.

Take, for example, the album’s opener, “Celebrity Booze Endorser.” Indie rock band Fountains of Wayne supports Shearer’s lyrics that are inspired by Madonna’s announcement she’d be endorsing a certain brand of booze. The legendary Jeff “Skunk” Baxter provides guitars, dobro, and pedal steel to give a country feel to the standout, “Touch My Junk.” This commentary on airport security was co-produced by Beach Boys/Brian Wilson musical director Jeffrey Foskett. Baxter also plays guitar for “Joe the Plumber” which deals with the gent who was neither named Joe nor was a licensed plumber but inspired much debate during the last presidential election.

On Can’t Take a Hint, guest vocalists are often as much actors as singers. In “Macondo,” Welsh actor/comic Rob Brydon expresses the point-of-view of the BP petroleum executive who wanted his life back after the Gulf Coast oil spill. Jamie Cullum sings the Sinatra-inspired “A Few Bad Apples” in which foot soldiers are blamed for decisions made by military higher-ups.

Glee’s Jane Lynch, who worked with Shearer in A Mighty Wind, plays a celebrity doing charity work in Africa without much follow-up in “Like a Charity.” “Your Thing” showcases Judith Owen in a song about a rather obscure topic, New York City trying to keep tourists in the city longer than one night for New Year’s. Owen also plays Sarah Palin in “Bridge to Nowhere,” a topic used as a metaphor in the political arena. “Trillion Dollar Bargain” has Alice Russell and Tommy Malone doing a very credible Motown imitation in an ironic defense of the cost of the Iraq War.

Backed by other instrumentalists like Steve Lukather (guitar), Nicholas Payton (trumpet), and Glen Berger (saxes), Shearer plays bass on many of the tracks and offers his own breed of versatile vocalizations. His Gregorian chant-inspired “Deaf Boys” is an offbeat look into the priest molestation scandals.

Featuring songwriter Bruce Gaitsch on guitar, “When the Crocodile Cries” is Shearer’s growling swampy take on Rupert Murdoch. A few tracks are what Shearer calls “song songs,” meaning they’re not intended to be satirical. “Autumn in New Orleans” features Dr. John as lead vocalist in this homage to Hoagy Carmichael. Perhaps the album’s most memorable line is “Heat is only skin deep, but cold is to the bone” from “Cold Is to the Bone,” as sung by Charlie Wood in a lyric about a very cold Mardi Gras. Danny Thompson is the bassist for this one, a veteran of Pentangle and Peter Gabriel’s band.

While a few of the numbers reflect concerns of the Crescent City and the Gulf Coast, Can’t Take a Hint does not follow any thematic unity unlike his previous albums. It’s a bit of a catch-up anthology of Shearer’s better productions made during the past few years in studios in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and London. Clearly, some of the funnier songs like “Joe the Plumber” and “Bridge to Nowhere” deal with subjects no longer current. These tracks are likely some of the choices taken from the Le Show archives. Without question, appreciating many of the lyrics will depend on listeners taking the time to read the liner notes first to know what the subject is and the perspective expressed.

As always, some of Shearer’s tunes aren’t really laugh-out-loud comedy but rather dry and clever intellectual twists of the knife inside often unexpected topics. It’s not a collection likely to inspire repeated listening, but that first time around is polished entertainment for both your ears and what’s between them. I can’t wait to hear what Shearer comes up with for the events of 2012.

Can’t Take a Hint hits stores on August 27, 2012.

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