Mason Williams

Them Poems

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Them Poems is more than just a connected collection of verses or a song cycle. It is in fact something of a schematic which would allow just about anyone to write a similar poem, providing they were interested. The process can also be compared to a virus, more the type that affects people than computers, or the circulation of fads such as break-dancing, in which anyone with proper agility can make up their own variations. Them Poems represent a minor part of the collected creations of Mason Williams, and also includes instrumental music, multimedia presentations, photography, inventions and graphic design. Something much of this activity has in common is a particular type of humor, a combination of surrealism and homespun philosophy that is distinctly family-ready. It is similar to the comedy routines Williams helped create for his most famous collaborators, the Smothers Brothers. Although there is no real professional connection, it is also reminiscent of vintage performances of the Muppets as well as Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In program. A quick rundown of the aspects of this kind of comedy would include the fact that it is totally stripped of any obscenity, although a veiled reference to hallucogenic drugs could just crop up here and there. It is also expansive to the extreme in terms of subject matter: a comedian who is not getting by with dirty material must make much greater use of imagination, proving to an audience that just about any topic can be amusing if presented in the right way. Eighteen separate versions of "Them Poems" were collected for the 1964 album release, a snorkeling for snickers among just as many themes, among them sand pickers, yodel yellers, lunch toters and moose goosers, not to mention one of the best tributes to canapes in the history of either verse or music, "Them Hors D'ouevres." A collection of Them Poems set to music and performed in front of an audience is surely not the best way to experience this material. That conclusion inevitably trumps any ensuing conclusions about Williams' performance of this material in 1964. A much more enjoyable way to experience Them Poems is in the form of a slim poetry chap book,also available by the way, a reader then having the option of performing the material out loud and most likely to themselves, although it is possible to sequester small groups of people and subject them to a series of these verses. Williams proves as much on this recording, one of many albums that claims to be recorded live somewhere when it actually wasn't. This is not a total sham such as the Freddy Fender "prison" album, neither live nor recorded anywhere near a prison. One track, ironically the only song not from the Them Poems, was actually tracked live at the Land of Oden folkie venue as advertised on the album cover. All of Them Poems actually come from a studio recording, save one done "live" in front of a chummy crowd. A reading of the material would have indeed been more effective in the end, providing the performer with the opportunity of pausing when a gag hits, not locking the often wordy lines into strict matters of meter. What winds up happening instead is that some of the lines are partially obscured, if not in the delivery then by one of a series of production decisions. Sometimes it is the sound of the acoustic 12-string guitar that fudges up Them Poems, sometimes it is the audience clapping along with a rhythmic splatter that would have driven some recording engineers batty. The collection doesn't quite become boring due to the repetition of certain musical structures for the songs, but it is the variations that really provide the best moments. "Them Toad Suckers," performed with just a clapping background over which Williams declaims the text, is some sort of small masterpiece, something to be considered a harbinger of rap although from the other side of the ethnic pea vine. Elsewhere tiny bits of instrumental music provide amusing introductions. "You Done Stomped on My Heart," the previously mentioned performance from outside the Them Poems canon, is a nice example of Williams' personal mix of understatement and overstatement.

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