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Music Review: Uncle Monk

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Even though he’s been a major force in American music for well over thirty years, very few people are familiar with Hungarian-born producer Tomas Erdelyi. He’s produced albums for the Replacements and Talking Heads, among others. But he’s probably best known for his work with punk icons the Ramones. It was here that his alter ego, Tommy Ramone, emerged as the original drummer of the original punk band, and it’s a legacy that stands on its own. He was not only their drummer, but their manager, producer and the main composer of “Blitzkrieg Bop.”

We haven’t heard a lot from Tommy Ramone over the past few years. As the last surviving member of the original Ramones lineup, he could have easily pimped the name and done the roadshow circuit. Thankfully, he’s put the Ramones to rest as a band, if not in spirit. His latest effort, in collaboration with former Simplistics guitarist Claudia Tienan is Uncle Monk. Whatever you might have been expecting from a Ramones alumnus, this album will surprise you. The duo that is Uncle Monk are neither punk nor bluegrass nor a pseudo-hip hybrid of the two.

The core aesthetic of punk, once it’s stripped of sociopolitical pretense, is its devotion to the foundation of the three chord progression upon which rock was built, and which the Ramones epitomized. Punk sneered at the bloated beast rock had become and rightly returned it to its garage band roots. On their eponymously titled debut, Uncle Monk have rooted out those roots, and delved more deeply into the music that is the foundation of rock. What emerges is an album that pays homage to the bluegrass and folk origins of rock, yet manages to sound unique in its own right.

This is music devoid of any pretension—no electrics, no guest musicians, not even any drums. The duo of Ramone (vocals, mandolin, banjo, dobro, fiddle, guitar) and Tienan (vocals, guitar, bass) provide all the textures here, and deliver a surprisingly full sound (thanks in no small part to Ramone’s—err, Erdelyi’s—production).

It’s by no means a rock album, but it can’t really be called a bluegrass album, either. What they’ve managed to do here is take the basics of bluegrass and folk, and update them in a way that’s relevant to our current social state. Psychologically, we’re not that not far removed from the Depression woes of Woody Guthrie—it’s only the face of the stress that’s changed.

But Uncle Monk aren’t overtly concerned with making a sociopolitical statement any more than the Ramones were. They’re dealing more with the rigors of day to day life, and if they make a statement in the process, it’s more a matter of happenstance. A hapless office worker plotting his fantasy revenge on his tyrannical boss, in “Mr. Endicott” speaks volumes to the Everyman, and “Need A Life” strikes a common chord with anyone caught in the maelstrom of urban life. By and large, though, Uncle Monk offer slices of modern life seen through the lens of simple dreams.

Uncle Monk the album requires at least a couple of listens to appreciate. It’s jarring by virtue of its simplicity. But when all is said and done, it’s nice to know that a mandolin and a guitar are all you really need to make a contemporary album.

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About Ray Ellis

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Tommy Ramone doing folk music — who woulda thunk it? I guess you could call it “punk folk” or otherwise put some other nonsensical label on it, but that would probably piss off Mr. Erdelyi to no end. Nice job on the review Mr. Ellis — I’m somewhat inclined to check this out as a result of reading it.

    -Glen

  • http://www.thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly Hughes

    You spark my curiosity about this record, Ray — I’ll have to dig it up and give it a listen. Thanks!