Music for Music: This Is Bric-a-Brac!
This Is Bric-a-Brac!
by Dan Ursini ©2019
The history of popular music is, to a point, a chronicle of remakes. There can be all kinds of reasons for re-doing a big hit from the past—most of them on the safe side. Far more provocative is to do oldies that nobody, really, has heard before. What is supremely provocative is to put together a band that does nothing but intelligent and spirited versions of such songs; and to keep that band together for twenty years. Welcome to the world of Bric-A-Brac: its co-founders, John Connors and Mike Armstrong, and their seven musical colleagues, who all commit heart and soul to their first new album in ten years, This Is Bric-A-Brac!
Connors says they favor songs from a specific point of cultural transition “after the Beatles changed music—and pop stars like Sinatra, Jack Jones, and Peggy Lee had to figure out where they fit in it.” He adds, “I also like songs that have a bit of the absurd to them.” He points to a line from “Stairway to the Sea,” a Bric-A-Brac standard that was originally written in Italian: ‘“Deep in the night, I climb the stairway to the sea…” How do you “climb” a stairway to the sea? Bad translation? Or Dali-like imagery?”
Stairway to the Sea
Typical of many songs in Bric-A-Brac’s repertoire, this tune was once a B-side of a 45 single by a mid-century artist—in this case, Johnny Mathis. Ben Alba, vocalist and keyboard player, says, “The Mathis version is beautiful with a big orchestra, but sounds more fitting for the soundtrack of an Esther Williams production number.” On the album they do a version fascinating for its energy, tension, and passion. It underscores how Bric-A-Brac does old songs but is not an oldies band. Nostalgia doesn’t factor. Their music is in a state of current discovery.
The songs on the album are solidly written, and some of them are terrific. Connors explains, “Our songs come from the age of 45’s, where the hook had to be quick and upfront or you’d go on to the next song. Singles must get you right at the start.” Why these songs went nowhere the first time around is anybody’s guess. But the remakes they get on this album are heartfelt and memorable.
The band’s sound is informed by music from movies and tv shows: horror, sci-fi, soaps, noir. But it is truly defined by the driving yet sensitive interplay between the band members, whose current lineup includes multiple vocalists, keyboards, and guitars; a vibraphone; and bass, drums, and percussion.
The album opens with Henry Mancini’s theme song for “Experiment in Terror.” Caroline Nutley’s soaring wordless vocal blends grace with terror. The flawless vibes of Larry Blustain, and the groaning reverb guitars of Mike Armstrong and Steve Zahradnik, deepen the tension of the song.
Principal singer Connors has a weathered voice of remarkable expressive reach. He can convey everything from the layered dread and regret in “I’ve Been Wrong Before” to the intellectual exuberance in the monologue in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.”
I’ve Been Wrong Before
Alba provides empathetic keyboard support throughout the album; and brings dignified power to his singing on “Rain in My Heart.”
Rain in My Heart
A tone of romantic anxiety dominates most of the album. A jaw-dropping exception is “Valerie,” a love song that sounds like it originated in 1962 Mayberry RFD. Mike Armstrong sings entirely in character with the earnestly over-awed lyrics, which is perfect.
Reflecting on why the band has survived for over twenty years, Connors quips, “I’m still shocked we are still playing after all this time.” Alba explains, “Perhaps because demanding day jobs and schedules don’t allow us to rehearse together and play out as often as we’d like, we value the time we do get to spend together. I’ve joked that since we’re lucky to do four gigs a year and an album every ten, we’ve sort of become the Brigadoon of bands.” Of course, the theme of that musical is a love that transcends time. I think that idea informs Bric-A-Brac’s commitment to bringing to life songs from another era—the best of which are timeless.
Please note: On YouTube there are videos of Bric-A-Brac doing the songs on their new album at various points in time and place. In my article, I try to provide links to the version where the music sounds best. Most of the time, that was with music straight from their new album.
BTW I am adding a link to a slightly longer video for “Experiment in Terror,” with additional minute or so of framing material from the film.
And this is Bric-a-Brac! Left to right: Larry Blustain, Caroline Nutley, Ben Alba, John Connors, Mike Armstrong, Jason Monroe, Mark Kluemper, Steve Zahradnik. Not pictured: Ron Bielanski.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine ; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org