Just recently, London-based singer/songwriter frYars sent out a MySpace bulletin urging people to watch a YouTube video by a friend. That friend turned out to be Tom Rosenthal and the video was of a song he wrote called Mark Ronson. After watching and listening to his rather thorough lambasting of Ronson, I had to find out more about him. Much like his friend, frYars, who produces for Rosenthal, he is offbeat, often humourous, and primarily uses piano for his musical narratives. With the wit and whimsy of musical comics like The Mighty Boosh and Flight of the Conchords and the quintessential Britishness and surreality of artists like Eugene MacGuinness and Simon Bookish, Rosenthal is the Oscar Wilde to The Mighty Boosh’s Edward Lear.
The gentle, classical piano provides a fantastic background for the tremulous, earnest voice that recounts literate stories that deal with topics ranging through bizarre dreams, Jeremy Kyle, royalty, religion, nudist colonies, fictional sidekicks and Tesco. The tweeness of the musical compositions lends an air of rambling, childish abandon, like a small, precocious child telling stories as they come to him/her, words tumbling out in a torrent of breathless creativity; however, this style belies a deep-seated sophistication and satirical talent.
The aforementioned song Mark Ronson is everything I was thinking about Ronson set to an understated, rolling piano ballad – watch the video above to see and hear what I mean. Rosenthal takes aim at Nelly Furtado in Nelly is a Maneater, a composition that fuses the original Maneater chorus with a carefully constructed backstory that involves Nelly being raised by wolves and consuming animals and CDs until she progresses to full-fledged cannibalism. Rosenthal tackles another songstress for Song for Regina, which is a passionate ode to Spektor in which the narrator professes his love for her and proclaims that he has listened to Samson countless times, but didn’t understand what Wonder bread is. In Touch My Bum, Rosenthal intelligently mocks Jamie T and other musicians that say nothing through their music; he expresses this vacuity by saying these artists may as well be singing, “This is life/touch my bum.”
In addition to commenting on popular culture figures, Rosenthal has songs about other facets of society. I almost choked on my tongue when Rosenthal completes the first line of his song The Queen: “The Queen sat down for her lunch/she had corgi on toast/because she likes that the most.” The song goes on to describe a royal existence that includes playing charades with Prince Philip and watching MTV (at which point, the Queen asks where Enrique Iglesias’s mole has gone and Prince Philip replies that it’s on an island with Sonny Bono, Elvis Presley and Fred Astaire). I had a similar choke-snorting reaction to a line in the song World’s Greatest Lover when after musing why women don’t like him, the narrator asks, “Is it because I still play hide and seek…with my mother?”
Another favourite song of mine is Giant Bicycle, which layers spoken word over softly rumbling piano as Rosenthal recounts a six minute digressive description of one of the most surreal dreams I’ve ever heard (all I can envision is Rosenthal riding a pennyfarthing in the Tour de France); the only song that I can think of that’s comparable is Noel Fielding’s collaboration with Midfield General. Equally as enchanting is the tripping romp of Away With the Fairies, which takes twee, hippie love to its extreme conclusion: being in love with everyone in the world except Robert Mugabe. It’s William Blake with a short circuit. One of the best put-downs to snot-nosed kids comes in the form of Phones Away, Boys; the narrator compares the delinquent youth to Channel 5, KFC, a weed and a triangle in an orchestra. And 1868 is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard about homophobia (the song culminates in the line, “if Stephen Fry is going to hell, then I want to go with him”).
Because Rosenthal believes most of his music should be available for free, he has put a large chunk of his music up on his Web site for download – I recommend the entire lot. By the looks of it, it seems that Tom Rosenthal is bursting with ideas, so I eagerly await new songs and an album. Rosenthal is one of those rare, but perfect combinations of musical acuity, intellectual agility, and imaginative comedy. Like all good satirists, he will outlast the fads he so eloquently observes and trounces.