Harry Shearer gets to hang out with some pretty impressive people — politicians, actors, business leaders, rock stars.
Harry Shearer is some pretty impressive people — Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap, Mr. Burns of The Simpsons, just to name a couple.
But when he was in a recording studio with Dr. John and trumpeter Nicolas Payton to record “Autumn in New Orleans,” a highlight on his new album Can’t Take a Hint, even he was, well, impressed.
“Two New Orleans giants in the room!” says the writer/actor/director/musician/satirist Shearer, who splits his time between homes in native Santa Monica and chosen New Orleans.
Shearer was able to dial back his awestrickenness enough to watch the masters at work, particularly Dr. John — a.k.a. Mac Rebennack, one of the most distinctive and accomplished figures in modern music from anywhere, not just the Crescent City.
“The amazing part is I sometimes overwrite lyrics,” Shearer says. “Normally I shave them down when I start singing. But the Mac comes in and I realize as he’s singing that there’s much more shaving to be done. And he just does it, intuitively, as he’s singing, the same kind of editing down to the bone that I once saw Rodney Dangerfield doing on his jokes.”
The joke here, and certainly the irony, may be that this song is not, in fact, a joke. It’s a heartfelt tribute to the city he loves (and whose peril he explored in the hard-hitting documentary The Big Uneasy, exposing the layers of human error behind the failures that flooded it in 2005, now streaming on Netflix).
Don’t fear. “Autumn in New Orleans” is the exception on the album, set for digital release via his Courgette Records label on Aug. 27. The rest of it is the kind of incisive, trenchant and onion-layered satire you’ve come to know through the nearly 30 years of his weekly public radio program Le Show. And most of the songs here were first heard there, showing Shearer as the keeper of the legacy of Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg. In the selections here he satirizes an array of pompous and fatuous newsmakers, from the now-former-head of BP (who, while having to deal with the post-Gulf spill flak whined that he “wanted his life back”) to a certain former Vice Presidential candidate and her bridge to a guy who is neither a plumber nor named Joe, but seems to refuse to go away.
Those originals, though, served largely as demos for the album version, loaded with guest vocalists and first-call musicians, brought together by producer CJ Vanston (and, for “Autumn in New Orleans,” that city’s keyboard star David Torkanowsky) for a set that far transcends what we’d expect on a “comedy” album.
And that brings us to the other irony (if we may stretch the term a bit), that on most of these versions, the voices are supplied by people who are not Harry Shearer. Harry Shearer, who among his many hats is perhaps best known for wearing the one labeled “Voice Guy.”
“My butter and jelly,” he says of that talent and renown.
The idea of having the guests, he says, originated with his label partner at Courgette Records, Bambi Moé.
“Our mutual goal was to get sale figures into the low four digits, at least,” he says. “It was just to get some folks who could sing these songs better than I, and it so happens that I know people like that. So I made some calls and sent some e-mails.”
So in addition to Dr. John we get English jazz-pop idol Jamie Cullum (ring-a-ding-swingin’ on “A Few Bad Apples”), English comic actor Rob Brydon (as that ex-BP head, Tony Heyward), Brit-soulstress Alice Russell duetting with New Orleans’ Tommy Malone (wondering what we got in the “Trillion Dollar Bargain” Iraq war, set to glorious ‘50s-style pop) and Gleekster Jane Lynch (a Shearer colleague in the movies A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, here channeling pop’s Material Girl in “Like a Charity”). The always-delightful Judith Owen (who happens to be married to Shearer) takes the lead on two songs, including “Bridge to Nowhere,” in which she portrays a certain former Vice Presidential candidate from Wasilla — with a visual performance in the video you can see below to match, moose chorus and all.
Letting go of some voice duties, it turns out, was easy. Well, certainly with these voices.
“I had my take of how Tony Heyward would have sung, which I did on the demo,” he says. “Rob is such a great talent I said, ‘Do it your way.’ I knew Jane did that kind of character and voice, so didn’t need to give her guidance. Was a pleasure to relinquish the reins. That was the most embarrassing demo, doing a voice so far out of my range. Jamie is such a native in the world of that kind of music that although I had taken a crack at it, ‘you don’t need me to tell you anything.’ The letting go was, if anything, a pleasurable part of it.”
Even when Shearer is singing, he has some noteworthy support: the band Fountains of Wayne (a long time Shearer favorite) on “Celebrity Booze Endorser” and guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers) on “Joe the Plumber” and the TSA-dedicated “Touch My Junk” among them.
Shearer did save perhaps the most challenging vocal hybrid for himself, taking the role of a scandalized priest in “Deaf Boys,” an finger-snapping, a cappella chant in a style for which he’s coined the term “Doo-wop-egorian.” He also takes on a favorite target, News Corporation founder Rupert Murdoch, in the lonely-at-the-top soliloquy “When the Crocodile Cries.” Yes, the same Rupert Murdoch whose company owns Fox TV (home of The Simpsons) and the U.K.’s Sky Television, home of Shearer’s Nixon’s the One, which brings to life the transcripts of Tricky Dick’s always-entertaining, often-cringe-inducing surreptitious Oval Office recordings (a pilot aired in the spring and five more episodes are in production).
And in the art-imitates-life-imitates art department, Shearer had a little epiphany during the Fountains of Wayne session, realizing that just as his satire can be indistinguishable from real life, sometimes it works the other way around. Not that anyone would be surprised that his associations with Christopher Guest and Michael McKean in Spinal Tap and its earnest kin the Folksmen could be used as a template for any band.
After singing live with Fountains in the first studio run-through —- “Not a cause for self-consciousness or anything” — Shearer turned observer as the musicians worked on their parts.
“Watching them work on the track in the relative relaxedness of not having to sing, I saw the band dynamics start to show,” he says. “Not to give too much away, but within an hour I had figured out the rough analogs for who the ‘Chris guy,’ the ‘Michael guy’ and the ‘Harry guy’ were in the band.”
Harry Shearer is scheduled to be a guest on Air Talk with Larry Mantle on Tuesday, Aug. 21.
Correction: Bambi Moé was initially identified as Shearer's manager; she's actually his label partner at Courgette Recrods.