Every once in a while some unknown will shoot up the popular music charts on the strength of the dreaded novelty song. Songs like "The Streak" would attract attention because of either their unique content or some sort of bizarre behaviour on the part of the band. Most of the performers behind these songs turned out to have no staying power, and once the novelty of what they did wore off they vanished from sight just as quickly as they appeared.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached Lipbone Redding And The LipBone Orchestra's most recent release, Party On The Fire Escape, on BePop Records after reading the promotional material that accompanied the CD when it showed up at my door. You see the name Lipbone comes from Redding's "ability" to imitate a trombone, and the first thing that brought to mind were the pathetic novelty acts of previous years.
Thankfully Lipbone Redding is far more than just his ability to make trombone sounds with his mouth and turns out not only to be a decent songwriter but an intelligent and skilled musician. Musically he's hard to pin down as Party On The Fire Escape sounds like he's tossed together a salad made up of Spanish Harlem, seventies soul, funk, a taste of New Orleans, and country music. Now it might sound like a bit of a train wreck when you say it, but he carries it all off without much difficulty.
Ever since I first heard West Side Story I've had a soft spot for Latin music from New York City. The trouble is that there are very few people outside of the Spanish community of that city who should be allowed to perform it as they invariably water it down into something that bears little or no resemblance to the original. So I was pleasantly surprised by the opening, and title track, of the disc, "Party On The Fire Escape", as its a great example of how that music should sound. Not only that, but the lyrics do a great job of drawing you into the song by making it easy to visualize exactly what's happening.
Lipbone is like a good storyteller as his songs have the ability to evoke an image in your head of what he's singing about. So when he's singing about the "Party On The Fire Escape" it calls to mind all those images you've ever seen of New York City apartment buildings wrapped in rod-iron stair ways and their inhabitants sitting outside in a desperate search for a breeze on a hot summer's night. It's a rare thing these days when a songwriter is able to do this as well as Lipbone does, and it gives his music an extra dimension that elevates it above a good deal of what you usually hear.
The other thing you'll notice about these guys is that they have a great sense of humour, and periodically remind us not to take things too seriously. Songs like "Single Again" or "The Lipbone Theme Song" are a little bit silly, but they never cross the line over into idiocy. They are sort of like the band dropping you a wink to remind you to have fun while listening to their music. For God's sake our lead singer fakes playing a trombone – we might play the occasional song that's serious but let's remember to have a good time. It's a good thing to be reminded about on occasion, that music is supposed to be about enjoying ourselves, far too many bands these days seem to have lost site of that objective.
Towards that end, the songs on Party On The Fire Escape are pretty evenly balanced between the ones that are designed to get you up off your butt and moving to the music and those that you're going want to sit and listen to. Of the former one of my favourite's is what you might call a reverse sampling song. Lipbone combines lyrics from the old Grandmaster Flash rap tune "The Message" with those from "New York City R.F.D" by Larry Collins and Alice Jay to create "New York City", a piece about the culture shock of arriving in New York City from the country. I think it must be the first time that I've ever heard anyone "sample" a rap song instead of the other way round.
What's impressive about that song and a couple of others, "Ghetto Girl" for example, is Lipbone's ability to use other styles of music and not sound out of place or like he's appropriating somebody else's music. "Ghetto Girl" is based on the old soul songs of the sixties and seventies and in the wrong person's hands would have sounded just awful. But Lipbone is able to walk that fine line required to make a song genuinely soulful and not fall over the edge into sickeningly sweet.
The major reason for that is his ability as a singer. One moment he can be growling along like Dr. John and the next he can send his voice up into the high octaves without skipping a beat. Yet even when he ascends the scale to sing soulful tunes, he's able to hold onto the same spirit that permeated his rough edged voice. That ensures those songs have the grit of reality they need to make the emotions expressed in them genuine and you can listen to them without running the risk of losing your lunch.
As to the trombone thing, or the Lipbone as it's called, it does sound like a horn. The good thing is that he only uses it in songs where it would be appropriate to have a horn solo, and even then he doesn't over use it. In the long run I think he would be better off finding himself a real horn player, as this sort of trick will only diminish his music eventually. Lipbone Redding is not a novelty act and he would be better off letting his music be appreciated at face value. It is good enough to stand that scrutiny.