The claviola is the kind of musical curiosity you’d expect to find in a museum of extinct instruments off Route 66. Or strapped to the chest of an oldman busking in the Berlin metro. But for the thirtysomething boys of One RingZero — perhaps best known as the house band for McSweeney’s — it’s the reason for their existence.
Writer Jonathan Ames explained ORZ’s humble origins at their 10thanniversary concert, held Friday night at Manhattan staple Joe’s Pub. Basically,it’s Laverne & Shirley for band geeks: A harmonica technician andan accordion technician work together at a German instrument manufacturer inVirginia, discover their mutual love for the claviola. A musicalpartnership — and hilarity — ensues!
The idea of Brooklynites making music with squeezeboxes only seemsgimmicky. While groove-heavy works like “Ev Got Drunk” and “VoodooFunction” evoked an Eastern European porn soundtrack, Joshua Camp and Michael Hearstshowcased their burgeoning radio friendliness with multiple tracks off theirlast two albums, As Smart As We Are (2004) and Wake Them Up(2006). Smart‘s major selling point was itsGranta-worthy roster of lyricists, including Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers (pictured), RickMoody, Paul Auster, and Margaret Atwood. But without ORZ’s genre-hopping melodies to back upthe words, a few of the songs would be little more than stream of consciousness scribbled on anapkin after the umpteenth book signing. (The biting lyrics in Denis Johnson‘shonky-tonk ditty “Blessing,” however, proved the author is as adept at poetry as he is at prose: “Bless, please, the people inart galleries/Lonely as a distant train/Bless, now, the cancer of the bone/Thelast light making beautiful/The poisons in the sky.”)
addCredit(“Dave Eggers: David Levenson/Getty Images”)
Among the most memorableof the Smart lot: Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket)’s “Radio,” marryingMoxy Fruvous-style kitsch rock with a liberal dose of curse words; and Clay McLeodChapman‘s “Half and Half,” a brassy cabaret number about a hermaphrodite,sung by Hanna Cheek in her best Marilyn Monroe sex-kitten purr. Though he ownsonly one album (Cat Stevens), Ames himself got into the songwriting game with”The Story of the Hairy Call.” His retelling of the tale behind the tune — whichinvolved an elevated testicle, a Victorian corset, and a blonde preteen goddess(’nuff said) — drew some of the biggest laughs of the night. What is the “hairycall,” you might ask? It sounds like a cross between Hebrew and Wookiee, and Ameswas more than happy to solo it throughout the joyfully cartoonish pop song.
“Arcade Fire we are not,” claimed Hearst before the band launchedinto Wake Them Up‘s tinkly-piano-based “The Chinese Pavilion.” A joke,sure, but in reality, their sound is more along the lines of TheyMight Be Giants(especially on “This Ain’t No Love Song,” chronicling the would-berelationship between man and store-window dummy, and “Here Come theMannequins,” oozing a Something Wicked This Way Comes carnival vibe) and Stephin Merritt’s Gothic Archies (the dirge-like “The SadCarousel,” which, strangely, had roller-disco lighting accompanying its minorchords).
The entire ensemble — featuring Ian Riggs on bass, Timothy Quigley on drums, NateWooley on trumpet, and Greg Stare on “auxiliary percussion” — returned to theirYiddish-jam-band roots on the boisterous finale, “The Toy Prophet.” Here, noinstrument was left unused, from the sci-fi-sounding theremin (as Hearst brushedhis hands across the electro-magnetic field, he appeared to be conducting anorchestra of mites), to the Latin guiro, to, yes, the beloved claviola thatstarted it all. Only 50 were ever manufactured: If ORZ can’t incite apublic outcry for its return, then no one can.