When you think about comedy music, which names pop into your head? “Weird” Al Yankovic? Tenacious D? Flight of the Conchords? “America’s Funnyman” Neil Hamburger? While Yankovic, Tenacious D and FOTC all make music that’s funny (and have acting careers), only Neil Hamburger (real name Gregg Turkington) acts, sings and also performs stand-up comedy.
For those who’ve experienced Hamburger’s uniquely caustic style of anti-comedy comedy, the idea of him as a singer and songwriter might seem not only odd, but also off-putting. Yet while Hamburger’s latest release, Still Dwelling, may sound like it could be an exercise in self-torture, it is genuinely appealing.
Yes, Turkington does sing in the same grating timber as his alter ego, but — thanks to a top-notch back-up band — the effect is quite charming. The Lawrence Welk Orchestra style of the musical accompaniment on Still Dwelling comes across like classy elevator music renditions of the pop hits of yesteryear.
The opening track on Still Dwelling is a previously unknown to me Paul McCartney song called “Backwards Traveller,” which sets the tone for the album in that it indicates the overwhelmingly retro vibe of these 12 songs. Despite a potential for cloying kitsch, the only song that actually feels a little too self-consciously ironic is the cover of Heart’s “Crazy on You,” complete with the sound of a bomb exploding.
“Lonely” has the kind of twisted, sardonic lyrics that feel as if Turkington had penned them himself, but the song was originally written by Mark Eitzel of American Music Club. It’s perfectly suited to Hamburger’s sense of humor and weird vocal style. It certainly must be a challenge for Turkington to sing in character, but he carries it off with panache.
The version of “Everything’s Alright” (yes, the one from Jesus Christ Superstar) is incredibly well-done. It helps that Turkington is assisted by Mike Patton and Jack Black, and that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original tune is fantastic, but still, he’s firing on all cylinders here.
Stil Dwelling also includes a stunningly good cover of T.S.O.L.’s “The Sounds of Laughter,” which retains the original tune’s haunting melody while transporting it to the Swinging 60s, complete with Hammond organ, xylophone, rollicking bass rif, and a horn section. This rendition would not be at all out of place in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
There are two tracks on which Turkington truly transcends the material. “Standing on the Corner,” a show tune penned by Frank Loesser and sung by The Four Lads in 1956, is already eye-rollingly sexist. Yet the way that Turkington stage whispers the bridge (“Brother, you can’t go to jail / For what you’re thinking / Or for the ooh look in your eye”) makes the subtext of the song sound positively threatening, especially in a post #MeToo cultural climate. In fact, it’s Turkington’s interpretation that renders the song more relevant than ever.
“Homeward Bound,” already a bittersweet chapter in Simon & Garfunkel’s discography, is made even more poignant with Turkington on the microphone. He transforms it from 1960s folk music into glossy 1970s country pop. There’s even whistling and an orchestral, Harry Nilsson-style bridge. When he changes the “mmmhmmm” at the end of the verses into a stifled grumble, it’s funny because it’s classic Hamburger, but –at the same time — it’s sincere.
More significantly, by changing just a few lyrics (“guitar” to “jokes” and “songs” to “gags”), Turkington gives the song a more personal heft; the lonely musician becomes the lonely comedian, and thus the song becomes more autobiographical. When Turkington sings “I wish I was” and “I’ll play the game and pretend,” one actually believes him, like there’s an alternate universe where Hamburger is a real person with feelings and problems (see also his 2015 film Entertainment). The layers of metacritical discourse here are downright exhilarating.
Similarly astonishing is the “Midnight Cowboy” (John Barry) and “Isolation” (John Lennon) mashup. Who would have believed that both Hamburger and Ty Segall would cover the same John Lennon song in the same year? The version here is just as daring as Segall’s rendition, but in a totally different way.
The two originals on Still Dwelling (“The Luckiest Man In This Room” and “Little Love Cup”) were co-written with Erik Paparozzi, Turkington’s accompanist and producer. They are as distinctly odd as Hamburger’s stand-up but completely enjoyable.
In “Little Love Cup,” Turkington repeats the line “no one loves a hater,” which feels shockingly profound coming from someone who makes some of the most tasteless jokes this side of Don Rickles. But like with “Homeward Bound,” one could speculate that Hamburger is actually talking about himself.
Perhaps the biggest potential for high camp could be found in the cover of Sonny Curtis’ “The Straight Life,” made famous by Bobby Goldsboro in 1968, but it’s the most straightforward song on the entire album. (It also makes me want Hamburger to cover Goldsboro’s famously cloying “Honey.”) One is reminded of Mrs. Miller, and her famously off-key, off-pitch and generally bizarre vocal style, but the difference is that Turkington can actually carry a tune.
The more important difference, of course, is that Mrs. Miller was a real person, and Hamburger is Turkington’s character. Fans of weird music have always talked about whether or not Mrs. Miller was in on the joke, but the sweetness of Turkington’s performance in “The Straight Life” suggests the joke is on all of us for not believing he could do it so well.
Still Dwelling will be released by Drag City on January 25, 2019.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.