When People Were Shorter and Lived Near the Water, the Brooklyn, New York sextet of merry pranksters led by singer Kim M. Rancourt, is devoted to conceptual covers of material from outside sources. Depending on one’s point of view, the work can be viewed as deconstructing the originals, partying with them or pummeling unsuspecting songs into submission. They sound like punch-drunk travelers who’ve taken a wrong turn and wandered into a quiet seacoast village, but, undaunted, come rolling out of their bus into the town square and begin singing songs of their homeland. But what seem, on first exposure, to be wildly exuberant first-take performances, are — when called for — actually smart arrangements. And dumb arrangements when they’re called for. These workmen use the right tool for the job.
The group’s first two releases — four-song 7-inch EPs, the first produced by Robert Poss of Band of Susans — consist of enjoyable if somewhat aimless cover-version deviltry. The first features a hopped-up rendition of Ray Davies’ “Dandy” (a hit for Herman’s Hermits) as well as a rock adaptation of the Gettysburg Address (!). Uncle Ben takes similar swipes at Herb Alpert, the Singing Nun, Eric Burdon and the Buoys; on the last two (Burdon’s psychedelic non-classic “A Girl Names Sandoz” and the Rupert Holmes-penned Top 40 cannibalism epic, “Timothy”), WPWS&LNTW finally work up enough musical steam to endow their output with something more substantial than theoretical interest.
Bobby, the band’s first full-length album, consists of 15 Bobby Goldsboro covers, many of them unrecognizable as such in these interpretations. Depending on your frame of reference, it’s either a deeply ambivalent treatise on the duality of popular culture or a colossal in-joke by artsy bohos with too much free time on their hands. Bobby isn’t exactly an affectionate tribute, but it’s not a complete joke, either. (The Bobby cassette includes the contents of Uncle Ben; the CD adds two more tracks to that pairing.)
In late 1990, Shimmy-Disc’s planned release of the band’s Porgy — an album of tunes from Porgy and Bess — was held up by legal objections from the Gershwin estate and not issued until mid-’91. When Porgy finally emerged, however, it was a well-informed piece of work, not simply a cheap parody. Guitarist Dave Rick and keyboardist Chris Xefos (both also of King Missile) are clearly the invaluable musical heart of the proceedings.
Bill Kennedy’s Showtime is a trip back to Rancourt’s Detroit high school days and displays the band at its strongest, covering songs by the Motor City bands that played the infamous Grande Ballroom. Passing over such obvious choices as the MC5 and Stooges, WPWS&LNTW favors Mitch Ryder, Catfish, the Frost and SRC.
Rancourt’s desire to work on original material with Dave Rick led to Shapir-O’Rama. Rick’s quartet made a quick evolution from its previous incarnation as Wonderama when they booted out their lead singer and replaced him with Rancourt. In contrast to his other undertaking, Shapir-O’Rama allows Rancourt (responsible for all the lyrics) to be serious, and his writing on El Mundo de Vapor y Valentia (Old Vienna) is heartfelt. Produced in part by Poss, the album contains only one cover, of King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.”