First-Class Americana Songs from the Multi-Talented Pigpen Theatre Co.

by delarue

Pigpen Theatre Co. are the first group to win the award for best play two years in a row at New York’s Fringe Festival. But they’re far more than a theatre troupe: they’re also puppeteers, and a wildly eclectic oldtime acoustic band. Their latest mix of live music and puppetry, The Old Man and the Old Moon runs through November 3 at the Judson Theatre on Washington Square South at 8 PM (be forewarned – tix are EXPENSIVE). If the Fringe folks are right, the play should be good, and so is the music. The soundtrack is streaming all the way through at their Bandcamp site.

The premise of the show is a surreal one: the Man in the Moon’s wife runs off in search of a tune she heard wafting across the waves, so he goes off to find her. Not having seen the play, it’s not clear where the music fits in: there’s a lot of searching going on. The songs run the gamut from bluegrass, to blues, to swing and some more modern styles, and the musicianship is tremendous (individual players aren’t credited on the band’s site). The opening number, As Lonely As Me builds to a big crescendo, sort of an art-rock take on Nick Drake. The next one is The Goose Song, a carefree country shuffle with some excellent, swirly accordion. Then things get dark quickly with Crow, a metaphorically-fueled banjo tune about two drunken birds making fools of themselves (animals frequently stand in for people throught the album).

The narrator of The Graveyard Song tastes his long-lost love’s graveyard dust and is convinced her soul is still alive – and she talks to him! It’s a rare upbeat moment from this point on. The shuffling Bremen, a pop song in an oldtimey suit, nicks a Midsummer Night’s Dream scenario, while The Dress Song mines a waltzing oldtime British folk vein, with strong baritone vocals from an alternate singer. Stowaway has the feel of an old English banjo ballad, setting a dread-fueled lyric over its catchy, recurrent riff: “Now the Tower is as feared as its glassy sneer, for those inside do look down…soon come the ropes, and everybody chokes…”

The sad, stark My Only Son alternates richly mournful bowed bass with resonator guitar and ends unresolved; We Stand Alone builds artfully into a lush Scottish ballad with accordion, rustic fiddle, some gorgeously ringing dulcimer, bowed bass and banjo behind a torrent of surreal lyrics. And that’s where the album ought to end. But it doesn’t: the last couple of tracks quickly reveal their lame, cliched indie pop origins despite all the snazzy playing. And as fine musicians as these guys are, the lead vocals won’t make any points outside the indie rock ghetto. It’s not that their usual lead singer has a bad voice, it’s that he sings with the studied, tone-deaf awkwardness that’s been all the rage ever since the landlords of Bushwick decided that pretty white boys in tight jeans made more desirable tenants than the neighborhood folks who’d lived there for decades. Beyond their heralded theatrical talent, Pigpen Theatre Co. are a terrific band.  They just need somebody else out in front of them most of the time.