Billy the Squid
In the Billy the Squid’s 13 original songs (14 on CD), Tom Chapin expresses attitudes but doesn’t try to adjust them. Instead of struggling to get inside a kid’s head, Chapin seems comfortable in his own. Sometimes he’s so comfortable you doze off, only to be revived by a mellow voice and a better-than-average song.
Chapin’s lyrics are inventive. The snakecharming ”Cameling” invents a new verb; ”The Ghost of Bleak House” invents a new exorcism method: kid ghostbusters. The children who move into old Josiah Bleak’s house refuse to be haunted by him. ”If you’re 225,” they say, ”you’re old enough to share.”
Chapin isn’t ha-ha funny, but he’s witty. A porcupine is ”a thousand points of fork”; ”Preacher Herman” (whose sermons took forever because ”he’s got a lot to say”) is a tour de force of the polite insult. In the title song, Billy the Squid is domesticated by the love of ”Clamity Jane”: ”He asked for her hand but she had none…” They ride off into ”submarine suburbs,” experience fertility problems, and adopt. Thoughtful fathers may identify with Billy’s change into something safe and dull, but Chapin is too cheerful, or too much like Billy himself, to sing this as a mid-life parable.
This gentle charm is enough for vocalist Rosanne Cash and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who accompany Chapin on ”All of My Friends,” a sweet duet about friendship. There’s no Grammy for high comfort level, but maybe there should be. B+