Graded on a Curve:
Chris Butler & Ralph Carney, Songs for Unsung Holidays

Don’t know if you’ve given the matter any thought, but we’re nearing the annual blitz of gift-giving and food-eating that’s known as the Holiday Season, a late-year explosion kicked off with the costume-wearing and candy fiesta known as Halloween. But holidays, a few big, many of them small, are a year-round thing. Chris Butler and Ralph Carney knew this prior to making the LP Songs for Unsung Holidays, and after listening, you’ll assuredly know it, too. Is it quirky? Indeed. How ‘bout zany? At times, yes. It’s also impeccably played, and as Carney sadly and unexpectedly died last December, its contents are dedicated to the man. It’s out now from the estimable Ohio-focused label Smog Veil Records.

Chris Butler and Ralph Carney first joined forces in Akron’s Tin Huey, a cool if sometimes overlooked (fitting, given the subject matter of this album) arty new wave unit from their state’s post-punk heyday. Concurrent with Tin Huey, Butler was working up The Waitresses, the outfit he’s primarily known for today, cutting the original version of “I Know What Boys Like” (an enduring song that’s solidified the group’s “one-hit wonder” status) with Carney on sax (though it doesn’t appear that he was ever a full member.

The distinctive saxophone of multi-instrumentalist Carney has graced a slew of records, including a bunch of Tom Waits classics (Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, and Mule Variations amongst them) plus discs or live performances by Elvis Costello, Jonathan Richman, Medeski Martin & Wood, Bill Laswell, The B-52’s, Galaxie 500 (his playing on the alternate version of “Blue Thunder” is a favorite of mine), and the Black Keys (Patrick Carney is his nephew).

Carney also issued a handful of solo and collaborative records over the years; I fondly remember Happiness Finally Came to Them, his joint effort from 1987 with Daved Hild (a member of fantastic Boston avant-garage act The Girls) and Mark Kramer (of Shockabilly and Bongwater, plus the impetus behind the Shimmy Disc label empire). Having stayed consistently busy, Carney’s passing came as a real surprise, but this project, while posthumous, is loaded with personality, and its arrival helps to alleviate some of the sting.

Butler has also kept active as a producer and player, so when the call instigating this album came from his old bandmate, no dusting off of instruments was required. According to Butler, the question from Carney was “How come there are no more silly bands?” Personally, it’s a question I don’t ever recall asking, but I do appreciate the sentiment.

They shared song ideas and then whipped them into shape in their own home studios, ending up with enough material for a full LP (plus a little extra on the CD version, which appears as bonus stuff on the accompanying vinyl download). The results are (hopefully) as silly as Carney intended, which is appropriate given the goofiness of some of the obscure holidays (amongst them “Bald and Free Day,” “Bubble Wrap Day,” and “Gorilla Suit Day”) that served as their subject matter.

However, “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” and “Bath Safety Day” underscore how the impulse for a few of these holidays was sometimes serious, and probably more often just regional. I’m guessing that’s the case with “Tapioca Day,” “Polka Day,” and “Salami Appreciation Day,” though frankly, I’ve yet to dive into the background of these holidays to check. (Methinks it’s better to retain the mystery.)

This suspected seriousness doesn’t exactly rub off on the contents of Songs for Unsung Holidays, but it’s important to note that Butler and Carney obviously cherished the irreverence in the existence of “Penguin Awareness Day” rather than responding to the absurdity with disrespect. By extension, they’ve come up with some honest-to-goodness songs here, with one of my favorites the fairly straight-ahead (structurally) new wavy pop of “Cheese Ball Day.”

Silliness in small doses can go down well, but more often it can land with a splat; likewise, instrumental quirk. In big doses, these qualities can be disastrous, but here the silliness and quirkiness are delivered by expert hands (Butler and Carney are pros in the best way possible), making the results consistently enjoyable if not mind-frying. This was clearly the intention.

But it’s the general devotion to concept and mood that really insures the album’s success. Individually, the tunes can be funny, but taken together the contents go beyond humor, and it’s only when the reality of Butler and Carney’s tenacity to this lighthearted project and its breadth really coheres that the funniness comes back to the foreground.

Is it laugh out loud stuff? At the end of “Gorilla Suit Day” and album closer “Hippie Day,” yes indeed. As an oddball comedy record in the Dr. Demento tradition (I also thought of Irwin Chusid), Songs for Unsung Holidays is a winner. But rather than laugh, it mostly just made me smile, both at the subject matter and at the thought of two friends getting together and producing something so approachably unusual. Its essence helps undercut the sadness of how much Ralph Carney will be missed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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