The Asylum Street Spankers long ago proved that you don’t need to make big noise to have big fun. The acoustic band’s final release, taken from their farewell shows in 2011, holds to the same gritty, unamplified aesthetic that drove them for their 17 years together. For part of that time the singer Wammo was part of the band, and as I remember it he had the most personality of all the members, and that’s saying a lot. Many members have come and gone over the years, and during their later period, the other musicians, especially Christina Marrs, continued to bring the soul through their voices and instruments.
On The Last Laugh, their final release, the foot-stomping spirit of the Spankers is strong as ever. Listen in – you have to strain to hear it – as mandolin and banjo player Charlie King taps out the tune on his cell phone (at least that’s what it sounds like he’s doing) between singing the verses of his “She Texted Me Goodbye.” Listen to the whole group belt out multi-part harmonies in the traditional gospel tune “Didn’t It Rain.” And listen as Marrs wails on her own “Never Goin’ Back,” then “sings” the melody of Saint-Saens’ classic “The Swan” (from Carnival of the Animals) on her musical saw.
That last number is an appropriate choice, this disc being the band’s swan song. The Asylum Street Spankers are gone, but not forgotten. Their completely acoustic show at Joe’s Pub in New York some years ago – no amplifiers, no microphones – remains one of my most memorable concertgoing experiences. It’s nice to have one more piece of documentation, and since this collection contains only songs the band never released before, it’s essentially a new album.
Marrs’s “Ludicrous Heart” is my favorite of the originals on the disc. It opens with the easygoing lope of an old-time country-western tune, but then piles on waves of lyrics that veer crazily between Latinate and Anglo: “No whiskey or wine can assuage my poor ludicrous heart…it argues convincingly…bellows and yells, and it sings and it wails, and it cries out and gestures and puts on a show.”
Except for the sad subject matter, that describes pretty well what the Spankers did, in a sonic concoction all their own, made of country, folk, dixieland and gospel. Long may the spanking echo on.