Having received universally widespread acclaim for his co-write on the RSC-produced musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda, Tim Minchin's latest live release proves yet again that there's more to him than his wild, Mick Hucknall-esque hairstyle and guy-liner. Backed by the 55-piece Heritage Orchestra, who had previously performed with UNKLE and Mike Patton, this 14-track souvenir of his highly ambitious 2010 show at the Manchester Evening News Arena shows that his previously intimate, piano-based ditties are surprisingly capable of translating to much more imposing surroundings. Featuring material both old (the backhanded compliment of "You Grew on Me") and new (the amusingly inappropriate "Lullaby"), this collection of self-penned, dry-witted tunes omits the brief standup routines that peppered the live show, allowing audiences to treat this like a record from a regular fully fledged pop star. Lyrically, Minchin covers the same ground as his previous three tours, particularly with the theme of religion on the likes of the ironic "Thank You God," inspired by a fan's claims his mother's cataracts were cured by prayer, the oompah-band rendition of "Pope Song," an expletive-laden South Park-style attack on the head of the Vatican, and "White Wine in the Sun," an atheist's perspective on an Australian Christmas. But musically, Minchin raises the bar with the lush, symphonic arrangements perfectly complementing his slightly nasal James Blunt-like tones on the semi-autobiographical "Cage Nerd," the cinematic swooning of "Not Perfect," and the big-band swing of "Context," while rare flashes of bass and drums add an Austin Powers lounge-pop vibe to the ridiculously funky and just plain ridiculous "Cheese" (sample lyric: "I Camembert it any more"). As if to counteract the occasional orchestral bombast, Minchin also performs several stripped-down acoustic ballads, including the subversive wordplay of "Prejudice" and "Beauty," which is so melancholic and solemn, it could have wandered in from a Badly Drawn Boy album. But Tim Minchin & the Heritage Orchestra work best when they take full advantage of their unique environment. What could have been a rather self-indulgent and misguided attempt to play the arena rock star has actually turned out to be his best work yet, which simultaneously stands up as a live pop/rock album in its own right, and throws down the gauntlet to Bill Bailey for the title of the U.K.'s favorite comedian-cum-musician.
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