by David Yearsley, Cornell University Professor of Music
Published in The Anderson Valley Advertiser (reprinted in counterpunch)
A dozen years ago Cory Cullinan’s My Oyster did for the debut CD what Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre did for the Bildungsroman two centuries before that. Had Goethe lived in these techno times he, too, would doubtless have logged many hours in the recording studio now the book-lined study of the me generations, the quill pen now a microphone, thick sheaves of paper now invisible digital files, the marble copy of the Venus de Milo on the library desk turned into a full-sized poster of Céline Dion on the soundproofed wall, the goblet of Rheinwein tossed out the window in favor of a slim can of Red Bull.
The resulting CD would have offered an intense and complicated vision of personal development, exploiting all opportunities to argue a high-minded aesthetic and moral vision. If you don’t think this is possible, order up a copy of My Oyster and marvel at its range of musical references and the matchless facility in adapting and transforming them. Be dazzled by Cullinan’s ability to imbue his music with wit and spontaneity, yet convey something that transcends the jokey moment, the fashionable aside, the wink and the nudge. Ponder the breathtaking elevation of a host of rock, pop, and Broadway genres to the realm of Art with a capital A. Revel in the myriad ways My Oyster amuses and elevates, conveying its message without beating you over the head with it.
I don’t want to imply, however, that this album is merely an exercise in erudition, although the album is full of it. This youthful masterpiece is also a huge amount of fun. Where Goethe abjured the uplifting possibilities of the frivolous, Cullinan sees in them great potential for moral improvement. There is an almost childlike quality in much of My Oyster, and this quality makes Cullinan’s latest CD, The Ballad of Phineas McBoof an unexpectedly logical development in his career.
Drawing again on his enviable mastery of the most diverse of styles, Cullinan directs his latest endeavor at those most exacting of musical consumers, not to say connoisseurs: kids.
The fifteen tracks of The Ballad of Phineas McBoof tell the story of the title character, a monkey of great musical talents who has tired of the fame he enjoys on the tropical Isle of Thelonius.
With Sgt. Pepper clearly watching from the wings as a worthy predecessor, the CD is presented as a stage show which begins with the audience taking their seats before the entrance of the narrator, Dr. Noize, who relates the events of Phineas’ life, beginning with the Latin and funk-inflected title song “The Ballad of Phineas McBoof.” The show then proceeds, alternating Dr. Noize’s spoken narration with songs documenting Phineas’s encounters with the various animal and non-animal musicians who will become the members of his International Band of Misunderstood Geniuses.
From Dr. Noize we learn that Phineas left his paradise of sun, sand, and celebrity to go off in search of musical regeneration and fulfillment. But before we follow Phineas on this journey we hear what won for him the adulation of the other monkeys back home—“Don’t Monkey with My Heart,” an homage to the early Beatles. This artistic lineage is referred to later on the CD with inter-textual and inter-generational reference to Paul and John. Like the best of children’s literature and music, the CD operates on many levels simultaneously: beneath the bubbling surface of pure kiddy appeal runs an undercurrent of musical and lyric allusion aimed at delighting parents.
In spite, or perhaps because, of the success of “Don’t Monkey,” the fame-weary Phineas sets out in his boat with only his guitar to pursue his goal of composing the “world’s perfectest song.” On the way he meets a range of musicians from various walks of life and non-life and of diverse musical talents and inclinations. And when the whole multi-cultural gang is united in song they do so “Always,” as Dr. Noize informs us by way of illuminating the ecumenical aesthetics that lie at the heart of Cullinan’s project, “reaching out to other kinds of music.”
The first of these chance encounters occurs while Phineas is paddling away from the Isle of Thelonious. Barely out of sight of the shores of home, he meets the future percussionist of the band, Backbone, The Octopus. After some introductory banter the pair engages in a duel of musical wits in which one and then the other calls out the parameters of the song they are about to improvise. Phineas demands seven beats per measure, and Backbone suggests the subject matter, landing on the non sequitur, “dogs.” Off the two go with congas and guitar and a lyric devoted exclusively to dog sounds.
This leads to further transformations as the musical chemistry clicks. The pair next lands on the idea of a faster six beat measure featuring kazoo and tabla. The lesson here is about rhythm—I defy you to find me another children’s album with any piece in seven—and about the world music ideal of combining any and all possible instruments. This politically correct message is then deftly ironized in the final section of the song where Phineas vamps on a harmonium, that unwieldy Victorian ladies’ keyboard about as far from world music as Winston Churchill is from Gangsta Rap. The Octopus accompanies on the djembe, an African percussion instrument. The hulking colonial relic of the harmonium is conjured not so much out of the waves as out of Cullinan’s irreverent and inexhaustible imagination.
Such set pieces not only serve Cullinan’s educational aims in sly ways, but also provide an ever-changing forum for his own musical fancy. When new musicians are encountered—from the funky bassist Bottomus The Hip Popotamus to the fiddling Western lizard Lenny Long Tail to an unlikely quartet of Honky Tonk Monsters—their individual musical chops serve up yet another challenge to the band. Even a detour to a concert hall, where the blue-haired audience chides Phineas and company for talking during the performance, gives the Lizard a chance to jam to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on a 1721 Stradivarius.
For all the nuanced song-writing and virtuosic engineering of sound and effects, there are also flat out crowd pleasers like the rollicking “Bananas,” whose lyric consists of that single word. It is a conceit which, in its own way, is as artificial and provocative to Cullinan’s invention as the other works of irrepressible omnivorous allusion.
Needless to say, celebrity shadows Phineas, and he and his Band soon become a world-wide hit; Phineas has run from his island only to find himself burdened by still greater fame.
In a just world, talent and its exercise should be duly rewarded, though Phineas professes to pursue the aims of art (the perfect song) over fame and fortune.
Even the most cursory of listenings to this CD reveals how rich the author’s invention is, and one could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that the monkey is Cullinan’s alter ego. There is far more to these songs than their hooks: Cullinan often takes his music material in unexpected melodic and harmonic directions, challenging our expectations and keeping our ears on their toes.
One hopes that the dumbo ears of Disney have not grown dumb to a genius of this caliber. If ever there were a kids CD crying out to be optioned this would be it. But will the free market reward Cullinan for raising us up rather than dumbing things down? It rarely happens that way. The Ballad of Phineas McBoof is full to overflowing with compelling characters, glittering musical riches, and an abundant joy in song and dance, but its covert mission is to educate children in music’s ethical and recreational powers and to do so with imagination and artifice, aesthetic pleasure and visceral fun spiced with provocation. Forget the banal Beethoven for Babies. The Ballad of Phineas McBoof is the musical primer of our times.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint. His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.