Comedian Harmonists

The Comedian Harmonists [Hannibal]

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If you're looking for something off the beaten path, have we got a CD for you. This is a collection of performances so fundamentally weird that standard rock criticism fails to do it justice. What we have here is a compilation of old 78 recordings by a truly one-of-a-kind group, the Comedian Harmonists.

The Harmonists were a sextet of singers from Germany, formed in 1928 with an ear cocked toward American music. These were no beer hall rover boys decked out in lederhosen, with mugs a-jostling airward. They were top-notch, tuxedo-clad singers who really had a feel for American jazz and the songs of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, albeit with a distinct European precision that really leaves its own fingerprint. Their fame spread across pre-Nazi Germany and Europe in the early '30s while their complex harmonies took the style of America's Revelers, Ink Spots, and Mills Brothers and set it off in a framework all their own. It's like that crazy music you hear in old Betty Boop cartoons, only sung in German. To hear these guys tackle pieces like "The Last Roundup" (aka "Get Along Little Dogies") or "You're Driving Me Crazy" in their native tongue is some of the most surreal music you'll ever be exposed to -- guaranteed. Their versions of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and "Tea for Two" escape the native tongue treatment, although their clipped English translations still adhere to the group's thoroughly Euro approach to all things swinging and American.

But this is no mere novelty tunes collection. There's real blood and guts soul to this stuff, and their human-voices-as jazz-instruments approach to Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call" makes them the equal of any American counterpart you'd care to throw on the turntable from the same time frame. Yet again, the way their voices constantly trill on certain notes makes them Euro to the bone, making this one of the most original musical amalgams you'll ever run across. Hitler's regime blacklisted the Harmonists and things were never the same after that, scattering the group into two different factions in two different countries, as three of its members were Jewish.

For years, their original 78s passed among a small cult of followers, until the first vinyl release compilation was issued in Europe in the '70s. Hannibal had been planning an American reissue since 1980, but legal tie-ups blocked that release until now. Planned for that original release were liner notes by legendary rock critic Lester Bangs. They are sadly missing here, but were printed in full in the New York Times on Sept. 5, 1999, a must-read for fans who like their rock journalism wild and wooly.

Listeners weaned on hip-hop, dance music, and modern pop will be excused for passing on The Comedian Harmonists; it's too quaint and old-fashioned for folks raised on manufactured music spit out by computers. But those with bigger ears will find something here that's unique and wonderful, hilarious and pleasurable. If you love American roots music but are burned out from a steady diet of Stevie Ray Vaughan-abees, lame retro bands, and phony jump blues combos, here's a group you can champion and be safe in the knowledge that nobody is gonna come along and try to clone this for mass consumption.

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