By David McGee
WE USED TO HAVE AN EMPIRE, WE NOW HAVE DIABETES
Isambard Jones & His Orchestra
733335 Records DK
The most unlikely and in many ways the most compelling pop-rock album of 2017 came out of the blue, from England, via the genius of rock journalist legend John Mendelssohn, who wrote all the songs on the engagingly titled We Used To Have An Empire, We Now Have Diabetes, in addition to playing most of the instruments and painstakingly producing Mr. Isambard Jones, whose tuneful voice is a cross between young David Bowie and that of a Jewish cantor. Possessed with a touch of Anthony Newley’s theatricality, Jones proves himself the ideal messenger for the Mendelssohn songbook, rife as it is with a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s sense of the absurd. Mendelssohn’s wry, satirical wit is in league with giants of the form, such as Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman. As if this weren’t enough contribution, our John also produced Mr. Jones, this assignment being a singularly challenging task, as the singer, hindered by the effects of a stroke suffered a few years back, must record his vocals piecemeal, phrase by phrase, or word by word. You’ve heard of vocal “fixes”? In which artists re-record a word or phrase over one they’ve botched? Well, every word or phrase Mr. Jones sings is essentially a vocal “fix.” Amazingly, the listener would never know, as the performances are seamless, assured, often of unusual depth, unself-conscious and at times touching.
Let us stop for a moment and consider Mendelssohn’s own description of this project: “Isambard Jones, a one-eyed Victorian purveyor of wry, tuneful, topical pop/rock music since 2017, was born in Bangalore in 1879, and then again a year later in Singapore, where his father was a diplomat and alcoholic. Young Is, the third-person singular present indicative version of the verb To Be, and short for Isambard, caught his first glimpse of England at 11, and almost immediately became an implacable seducer of kitchen staff. He later failed to date Joanne Lumley, and has resided since the early 1950s in a storage locker in Battersea Power Station. His hobbies are cricket, praying mantis, and locust, and he is available for lunches with the press if the press pays. His Orchestra comprises Darryll du Toit, at one time the Keith Richards of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and later ‘the cute one’ in southwest London’s Freudian Sluts. The Orchestra is conducted, and all its material written, by John Mendelssohn, who is mentioned in all your better David Bowie biographies, and many of the worse ones. A one-time rock journalist of international disrepute, he has been described on Rock NYC, an American music Website of incalculable influence, as ‘one of our more unique pop personalities, and like no one you have ever heard. From hard jingle jangles to experimental symphonic pop, his taste roams the landscape.’”
‘They Call the Breeze Louisa,’ Isambard Jones & His Orchestra, from We Used to Have an Empire, We Now Have Diabetes
‘You Just Phone It In,’ Isambard Jones & His Orchestra, from We Used to Have an Empire, We Now Have Diabetes
But you don’t make the Elite Half Hundred (#14 on this august list for 2017) or earn an Album of the Week honor in Deep Roots simply by making a wrong turn at Victoria Station. As the one critic who dared stand up to the criminal enterprise known as Led Zeppelin and gained a significant, highly vocal following (as in demanding he be drawn and quartered in the town square) in Rolling Stone‘s early years by properly trashing the lumbering, thieving quartet’s first two albums while conceding only that Jimmy Page “is the heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4” and 5’8,” Mendelssohn’s own music has always shown his love and affinity for early British Invasion rock styles. (How do we know? Because in the pages of the Rolling Stone of yore he was an indefatigable promoter of his band Christopher Milk, something wholly unimaginable now, much less in the ensuing decades leading up to this moment in time.) Despite their composer’s gifts for satire, the Mendelssohn lyrics also linger in memory for their heartfelt sentiments and indelible images—think Tom Lehrer filtered through Ray Davies. Those lyrical strengths remain in force on Mr. Jones’s debut; but though there are hints of the more raucous Mendelssohn in his keyboard work (the juxtaposition of gentle chimes with a twisted, processed keyboard solo in “A Beautiful Sight to Behold” will make you sit up and take notice), the overall feel of the project is more indebted to the British music hall style with a dash of Spike Jones for good measure.
‘When Handsome Johnny Sails Away,’ Isambard Jones & His Orchestra, from We Used to Have an Empire Now We Have Diabetes
‘A Beautiful Sight to Behold,’ Isambard Jones & His Orchestra, from We Used to Have an Empire, We Now Have Diabetes
We find for instance, a restrained but rather savage kissoff in “From Atop the Shard,” in which Mr. Jones warbles, “you’ve been kidnapped by savage Mongol hordes/they’re scarce of course in Norway/but I can always hope/one like you will hang herself if given enough rope…” In “When Handsome Johnny Sails Away” we encounter a percolating modern-day take on Ricky Nelson’s “Traveling Man” in the form of an ode to the girls (or, in one memorable lyric, a ladyboy) awaiting our hero in various ports and towns the world over. Sample lyric: “My fraulein down in Dusseldorf’s a hundred percent Aryan/she raises birds of prey for fun/’tho all they eat is carrion…” Had the Beatles ever gone Celtic, they might sound like what Messrs. Mendelssohn and Jones conjure on the lament “You Just Phone It In.” Listeners not too jaded to appreciate genuine affection should be moved by the tenderness in Mr. Jones’s voice when he sings, in “A Beautiful Sight to Behold,” “what I’d most like to see/is you in bed next to me/that, I tell you, would be a beautiful sight to behold”—the pause for “I tell you” is a heart tugging literary touch of the first order. “I Shall Not Sink,” the bubbling arrangement of which bears a passing resemblance to the Pogues’ “Dirty Old Town” done at a slower tempo, is a catchy ditty of self-affirmation with an impossibly lush chorus announcing, “Though I can’t pretend I won’t last/I intend to be the last reprobate standing/I won’t inject, nor will I drink, I shall not sink!” As anyone who reads Mr. Mendelssohn’s Facebook postings knows, he’s on top of the day’s pressing issues (and a most vocal critic of the VSG [Very Stable Genius] masquerading as President of the United States). He does not disappoint in that regard, providing Mr. Jones with the topical “The Lowly Cockroach,” therein observing, in part: “we scorn the lowly cockroach/who lives as God intended/our good luck will soon run out/our lease won’t be extended/the ocean’s full of toxic waste, the forests are denuded/if we imagine nothing’s wrong/we’re fatally deluded/we scorn the lowly cockroach/who lives as God intended…”
‘We Used to Have an Empire,’ Isambard Jones & His Orchestra, from We Used to Have an Empire, We Now Have Diabetes
Other joys abound on We Used To Have An Empire, Now We Have Diabetes, including a couple of tunes carrying parental warnings. All evidence indicates Mr. Mendelssohn is a prolific writer of prose and songs and will continue to be heard from in various guises (his blog Mendel Illness is must reading), but what the future holds for Isambard Jones is less clear. Having made a most favorable first impression with this collaboration, however, these two artists merit another go-‘round.
Dear readers, you owe it to yourself to keep up with John Mendelssohn’s reflections on the state of various unions and his own journey, visit his blog, Mendel Illness: The Online Magazine of Nearly Unendurable Despair. His pain is your gain.