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The summer road trip seems to offer the chance to catch up on all those recordings accumulated over the previous year. Depending on your perspective, the endless government pork ladled out onto the highways of this country can lead to teeth-grinding back-ups or to the welcome chance to listen to a new reading of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier as the freshly poured tarmac steams outside. A missed exit to Newark’s Liberty Airport forces not just another foray into the blight of northern New Jersey, but more importantly, the chance to follow a friend’s free-form jazz odyssey to its outer limits.
I will admit to being slow to turn my attention to a CD that landed on my doorstep way back in January. The Return of Phineas McBoof is the latest offering from the fabulously talented, endlessly imaginative, and unfailingly fearless performer/composer/showman Cory Cullinan. This album shouted out to be played and heard, like a child eager to display its latest creations to the world. But when I tried to locate the disc a few days after its arrival it had scuttled off to hide in some nook or cranny.
Fast forward to the dog days of August and a battle-scarred red Honda hurtling eastward on US Highway 17 along the West Branch of the Delaware River through New York along the Pennsylvania border. It’s a stretch of road being dragged towards Interstate status as otherworldly signs promising a “Future 86” inform motorists. 17 is being 86ed: at home or abroad, American nation-building always involves killing.
Few things put this driver in worse temper than seeing swaths of Catskill Mountains cleared and leveled, and ugly new bridges planked over the gorgeous waters of the undulating river. I’m of the same mind as Auden on this one:
I well might think myself
Could I manage not to see
How the autobahn
Thwarts the landscape
In godless Roman arrogance.
I need cheering up, and luckily I’d ferretted out that long-lost Dr. Noize disc minutes before departing. The album had barricaded itself behind a metronome and a GPS, and when I grabbed the latter I also corralled the CD.
My destination is Hartford to pick up a daughter from a string quartet camp at the Hartt School of Music. One of her best loved childhood discs is the first Dr. Noize installment: the Ballad of Phineas McBoof, a work ecstatically reviewed by me in these pages some years ago. Though said fifteen-year-old daughter’s musical tastes have changed, those noizeful songs from that CD remain in her heart on her play list, and not just the infectious mega-hit Banana, which reappears in different guise on the latest recording now accompanying my progress along Future 86.
The fundamental belief motivating Cullinan’s efforts as an untiring live performer and recording artist is that kids are the most creative, demanding, and resourceful listeners. Dumbing things down for their supposed benefit is not only boring and insulting, but misses a huge opportunity for involving young listeners in the joys of music-making, invention, and self-discovery. And like the best of “children’s” cinema, literature, and music, his work operates on several levels, pleasing, edifying, entertaining, and occasionally mystifying not just kids of all ages, but people of all ages.
The Return of Phineas McBoof begins in medias res during the intermission of a concert given by the virtuoso musical monkey McBoof and his Band of Misunderstood Geniuses, a group made up of a host of other animals, from hippo to lizard, with Cullinan’s alter ego Dr. Noize the only human-being admitted into this august assemblage. So powerful is the music impulse among these various species that even when cooling their collective heels, claws, and suction cups back stage at a gig, they can’t help bringing new songs to life. Dr. Noize and the many-limbed drummer Backbone the Octopus (a role taken by Cullinan’s wife Janette) remind themselves of their just-invented chord progression and congratulate each other in a bantering display of off-beat collegiality. Along the way they inform us that the verse is in E-Major the chorus moves to F-sharp to lend the proceedings more “Gravitas”— right from the starting gate we experience Cullinan’s knack for elevating the listeners rather than pulling them down with boring baby babble. Cullinan’s vast gifts and irreverent pursuit of his mission of education and uplift allow him to take a seemingly ponderous Latin word like Gravitas and toss it out there with nonchalant lightness.
What we are hearing is a (reenacted) world premiere of the song, one conjured in the break from a “job.” This first performance is buttressed by the other band members as it proceeds from a sunny optimistic duet to ensemble frolic. Aside from the concrete knowledge about structure and harmony conveyed in the set-up, the message imparted by this opening tableau is that music is an irrepressible delight for all: as the song proceeds in rich colors, and harmonic turns worthy of Lennon and McCartney, we are swept up and along, through to the disarming, colloquial injunction of the refrain: “Go be Awesome!”
We then follow fiddle-master Lenny Long Tail making his way back to the stage for the second half of the show. Even this short journey, one that undertakes an unexpected detour into a hallucinatory cabaret, is full of fantasy and allusion, packed with references, musical quotations and gags. Resuming the concert, Dr. Noize recounts his past as a pontificating kids’ performer ladling out soporific musical sermons. Among Cullinan’s many strengths is self parody and the puncturing of political correctness. Passing by one of Cory’s painfully didactic concerts, Phineas and his band recognize the future Dr. Noize’s potential for engaging audiences of all ages. Out of this reverie breaks a rock ‘n roll romp of the Funky Monkey that demonstrates forcefully Dr. Noize’s transformation from preacher to no-holds-barred musical madman.
Following this bracing survey of styles and moods is like shooting musical rapids on the mighty Colorado in Cullinan’s adopted state. One is continually astounded that Cullinan can pack his hour-long disc so full of the most diverse music: from folk to classical, from the urban grit of rap to the natural world of birdsong, serving up the funkiest soul food sandwich served up in the history of recorded sound.
With so much on offer Missteps could lead to disaster, whether failed jokes or barrage allusions like so many academic footnotes, and Cullinan is not afraid of taking risks. Meticulously constructed and presented, the CD nonetheless exudes a sense of being created in the moment with unbounded humor. The album is a towering artistic achievement, that never feels weighty and reveals new secrets with each listening.
This narrative discovery, doubt, and affirmation follows bandleader McBoof as he seeks artistic fulfillment away from the spotlight, music itself being of greater importance than fame and celebrity. Personal integrity, friendship, and the difficulty of farewell are confronted along with myriad other emotions and shifting musical representations of them. Among many highlights is a raucous reprise of Banana as if sung by the three tenors. This is one of many examples of Cullinan-the-voracious-musical-omnivore: young listeners introduced to foreign languages, harpsichords, recitatives, grand opera, and too much else to enumerate here. Only a tremendously generous musician could carry this off without becoming hostage to his own genius.
Dr. Noize’s next destination is the orchestra: Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony. That should get me a long way down the road ahead and open up new vistas onto the endlessly captivating landscapes of Cullinan’s musical imagination.