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Review: Tom Lehrer, “The Tom Lehrer Collection”

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The career of Tom Lehrer is an improbable one.  A Harvard mathematics instructor by day and musical satirist by night, Lehrer was never particularly prolific.  His entire output amounts to around 50 songs and a handful of albums which have been repackaged over the years.   Most of his oeuvre was recorded between 1953 and 1965.  Yet he was the recipient of a lavish 3-CD Rhino box set collecting most of his work in one place (The Remains of Tom Lehrer, Rhino R2 79831), and with that set now out-of-print, Shout! Factory bestows the deluxe treatment on him with the 2-disc The Tom Lehrer Collection (Shout 826663-11823). 

So why Lehrer?  One listen will quickly show why his small but important catalog keeps getting anthologized.  I had anticipated that this set would be unnecessary for those who owned Remains, but Shout! has created a terrific companion to the box by including on this set a DVD of eight Lehrer songs and performances that have never before been commercially released.  With 26 tracks on the CD (all repeated from the box set) and one DVD, this is a veritable Lehrer feast.

Lehrer’s stingingly satirical tunes predate Randy Newman but share a similar acerbic wit and dry delivery.  Like Newman, he frequently accompanies himself on an ironically rollicking piano.  A master at marrying tuneful melodies to lyrical zingers, Lehrer jabs racism on “National Brotherhood Week” (“Oh, the white folks hate the black folks/And the black folks hate the white folks/To hate all but the right folks/Is an old established rule”) and the environment on the jaunty “Pollution” (“The city streets are really quite a thrill/If the hoods don’t get you, the monoxide will!”).  There are no sacred cows in Lehrer’s universe; he skewered the Catholic Church with “The Vatican Rag” and wrote what is probably the only jovial music hall number about STDs (!) with “I Got It From Agnes.”  While his delivery sounds somewhat arch to modern ears, his lyrics are almost cringingly current. 

Lehrer indulges his academic side with “The Elements,” literally a list song of 102 chemical elements set to a Gilbert and Sullivan melody, and finds a way to make them comical.  Best of all is the pastoral “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” which its author describes in his pithy track-by-track liner notes as such: “A gay spring song, proselytizing for one of the author’s favorite avocations.”  Lehrer didn’t shy away from the controversial with “Who’s Next?,” a song about the bomb that predates Newman’s own brilliant “Political Science,” and with the aforementioned “Vatican Rag.”  More details on this edition follow after the jump!

The tracks on this collection are drawn primarily from three LPs: 1959’s An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (self-pressed TL-202-S), 1960’s Tom Lehrer Revisited (self-pressed TL-201) and the soundtrack album to This Was The Year That Was (Reprise RS-6179).  Additional tracks are drawn from a 1960 single (Capricorn C-451),  the Rhino box set and sessions for The Electric Company.  The DVD is worth the price of admission alone, containing four Electric Company clips (Lehrer wrote and sang his own compositions for the famed children’s television show, and didn’t tone down his wit in doing so), one from the BBC program The Michael Parkinson Show, two from a Mathematical Sciences convention (no joke!) and a clip from the concert Hey, Mr. Producer!  On that last clip, Lehrer is introduced by no less a talent than Stephen Sondheim, whom Lehrer asserts in his notes is “the greatest lyricist the English language has ever produced.  That’s not an opinion, by the way; it’s a fact.”  Sondheim has no less admiration for his contemporary.

The album plays much like a Lehrer concert, as so many of the tracks are taken from his live performances.  (His studio output is unfortunately small, but is also represented on the CD.)  Some favorites are missing; I was most disappointed to find “The Old Dope Peddler” left out.  For the record, Tom assembled this compilation himself with co-producers Derek Dressler and Jordan Fields.  But with a generous 26 tracks, this is one-stop shopping for fans of comedy or just great songwriting.  And if you like what you hear, hit up your local digital provider for “The Old Dope Peddler” and enjoy more of the wacky, wild world of Tom Lehrer, moonlighting satirist.

Written by Joe Marchese

April 22, 2010 at 01:20

Posted in Compilations, Reissues, Reviews

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4 Responses

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  1. My middle school chemistry teacher played us “The Elements,” and to this day, some ten years later, I’m pretty sure my best friend still knows all the words.

    Mike Duquette

    April 22, 2010 at 01:23

    • Now that’s a great teacher!

      Joe Marchese

      April 22, 2010 at 23:49

  2. This man was (is) absolutely brilliant. Most people today probably wouldn’t get parts of “New Math” because, well, they keep reinventing how to teach mathematics about every five years but, to this day, I still quote one of the jokes.

    “Base eight is the same as base ten……if you’re missing two fingers.”

    Roger Wink

    April 22, 2010 at 18:16

    • Now if only someone could coax more songs out of Mr. Lehrer…then again, so many of his past musical observations still ring so true!

      Joe Marchese

      April 22, 2010 at 23:52

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