The Boston Phoenix
July 6 - 13, 2000

[Music Reviews]

| clubs by night | bands in town | club directory | pop concerts | classical concerts | reviews | hot links |

Money shots

Why the Upper Crust rule

Cellars by Starlight by Carly Carioli

It goes without saying that when the Upper Crust write a song called "Everybody's Equal," they're going to find a way to say exactly the opposite. And though you might've guessed that they'd steal the punch line from Animal Farm for the chorus -- "some more than others" -- you probably weren't expecting the nasty crack about your relatives.

The Crust -- Lord Bendover ( Nat Freedberg) going on in that pinched nasal oink of his; Duc D'istortion (former Titanic Dave Fredette), whom you can recognize as a true English noble by his French surname, gently prodding the tune along; the esteemed rhythm section of Count Basie (Upstart Records co-founder Chris Cote) and Jackie Kickassis (former Bags/Lyres drummer Jim Janota) bringing up the rear -- are in the midst of a stupendous performance. "You know," begins Lord Bendover, speak-sing sermonizing over a heavy-metal soul ballad, "some very beautiful women, they just happen to be born poor/And they're tryin' to keep starvation [now he's flat-out singing, Al Green trapped in the froggy larynx of a spoiled white boy who's forgotten for the moment that he's supposed to be faking an English accent] from their door/You know they're all on the streets-unh/They're tryin' to make ends meet/And some people call 'em dirty old whores/But they ain't no different from your daughter or from your mother/As a matter of fact, they're considerably [pause for effect] better lovers [pause for laughter]/And their assholes smell much sweeter, of that I'm sure."

"Everybody's Equal" is the final song on the Upper Crust's new, perfectly named double-live CD Entitled (Reptilian), which was recorded over three nights before club-sized live audiences at Allston's Kissypig Studios and has just about everything you need to hear by them. (The band celebrate its release with a show this Saturday at Lilli's, the new club in the space that used to house Club 3 in Somerville.) Included are 11 new songs that were slated to appear on their third studio album, which was recorded for and then abandoned by the independent label Emperor Norton after a not insignificant expenditure of time and money. And the survey of material from the band's previous two albums sounds significantly fuller, louder, and more inspired than the paltry studio versions. The only notable omissions are the blitzkrieg-bopping "Minuet" and "Friend of a Friend of the Working Class," a pair of early faves that were excised from the Crust repertoire when their author, Lord Rockingham (a/k/a Ted Widmer), left the fold. During his tenure, Widmer was briefly in the remarkable position of writing lyrics for a character called Lord Bendover and foreign-policy speeches for a character called President William Jefferson Clinton. (He's currently teaching at Washington College and working on a book about early African-American music.)

So after almost two decades (going back to his early-'80s band the Flies, who recorded for Homestead), there is finally a definitive release by Nat Freedberg, a satirist with dead-on aim and a habit of writing songs that are at least as good as and sometimes better than the stuff he's making fun of. He honed this sort of thing in the Titanics, who were merely snide, and then later in the Satanics, who lampooned the Devil's music while matching its visceral thrills chord for chord and backbeat for backbeat (the Supersuckers have been in his debt ever since). With the Crust he's substituted the root of all evil for money: four men in velvet knickers and puffy shirts and greatcoats and powdered wigs, amps trimmed with antique frames and candelabras, voices sheathed in 'orrible English accents, playing songs that are as easy to sing along with, or air-guitar to, and as fully realized as anything by AC/DC, Van Halen, the Ramones, and the rest of the world's dumbest geniuses. The premise -- 18th-century old-money fops who can't quite get the hang of rock's egalitarian ideal -- is deceptively simple. "Rock and roll," Freedberg once told the English magazine Mojo, one-upping Spinal Tap, "should be funny and stupid." (Or, as he describes several tunes on Entitled, "simple and pleasant.") And though that oft-quoted manifesto explains much of the Upper Crust's charm (not to mention rock and roll's), it isn't often that so much thought goes into something this silly.

One must assume that Freedberg has, with the Upper Crust, found his true calling. He knows at least a little whereof he speaks; his great-grandfather was New York newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer, the father of tabloid journalism and the man who founded the Columbia School of Journalism and endowed the Pulitzer Prizes. Although you might hear someone mention behind m'Lord's back that the persona has not fallen far from the tree, you won't likely hear anyone say it to his face, since he has been known to frown on such uncourtly behavior with both fists. (A semi-official Crust biography on the Web makes reference to Lord Bendover's "rapier wit"; it stops short, however, of mentioning his razor-sharp temper.)

"Let Them Eat Rock," the title track from the Crust's 1995 debut (Upstart/Rounder), opens Entitled, and it works equally well as an indictment of pop music's self-importance, a meditation on the myth of a classless society, an allusion to the crack epidemic, or, Heaven help us, a funny, kick-butt song about starvation: "They say there's people starving/Droppin' down dead in the street/The lazy slobs, they ain't got jobs/They say they ain't got enough to eat/Well, let them eat rock." "Everybody's Equal," though, goes one step farther -- it begins as a facetious critique of rock's egalitarian folly but quickly moves on to skewer the enlightened notion that all of us, royalty and peasant, rocker and rocked, are on equal ground in the eyes of God and the state -- the corollary being that a street whore is no better than your mother and (more to the point) vice versa. This might be as mean as anything by arch-satirists Anal Cunt, but it's more fun to dance to. And though it might sound like a mouthful coming from a band whose better songs include "I've Got My Ascot 'n My Dickie" and "We're Finished with Finishing School," well, there it is.

The best moments on Entitled resonate as in-jokes about particular discredited stylistic conventions that are embedded right into the music: "Matron," with its elaborate "Eleanor Rigby"-esque intro; "Eureka, I Found Love," with its Aerosmithic pop-metal flourishes; "Once More into the Breeches," their parody of that hard-rock staple, the tour-diary anthem; and the naive hand-holding "Everybody's Equal." It's rock and roll's version of a comedy of manners, with the Upper Crust's aristocratic bearing revealed to be a product of the same ill-bred passions that inflame us common folk.

The Upper Crust celebrate the release of Entitled this Saturday, July 8, with a show at Lilli's, 608 Somerville Avenue in Somerville. Call 591-1661.

The Cellars by Starlight archive

[Music Footer]