May 21, 2020
(+++) THE UNPERSUADED
Clickable: The Art of Persuasion. Zara Lawler, flute, piccolo, whistle, voice, washboard, banjo; Paul Fadoul, marimba, voice, guitar, cajón, egg shaker, vibraphone, candy shaker. Ravello. $14.99.
Sometimes a CD simply cries out to be a DVD. That is especially true when the material on a CD was specifically designed as part of a visual presentation – as is the case with a new Ravello release featuring music, talk and social commentary under the overall aegis of Zara Lawler and Paul Fadoul. Listening to this is sort of like hearing an hour-long television program without being able to see it. In fact, the CD is about the length of an hour-long TV show after commercials are subtracted: it runs 47 minutes. But commercials are not subtracted here – they are a major part of what Clickable is all about. And what it is about is persuasion of all sorts. Not persuasiveness, which is a different thing and not one of which this material boasts. Persuasion is the hallmark here: a mixture of commercials, promotions, protest, verbiage, even a lullaby (which, in the context of this disc, is seen as a method of persuading a baby to go to sleep).
Lawler and Fadoul are aided and abetted in this endeavor, which originated as a live show, by composers Lewis Spratlan, Adam B. Silverman, Ralph Farris, Jason Nett, Katherine Hoover, Pat Humphries and, improbably, George Frideric Handel; and by speakers and instrumentalists Megan Meyer, Aine Zimmerman, Bill Spence, George Wilson, and Howard Jack. What pulls together all these disparate people and the many performance tools they use (from voice to hammered dulcimer to candy shaker to alto flute to nightingale whistle to cowbell to the kitchen sink – well, not that, but everything but) is a concept that, unfortunately, is not as clever or interesting as the people and instruments gathered to deliver the material. The idea here is, yawn, the excesses of a consumer-centric society and the means by which those excesses are perpetuated and the targets of those excesses are manipulated.
The actual material here is carefully conceived and sufficiently varied so that much of Clickable is fun to hear even though it is hard to take its earnestness seriously. For example, there are four 30-second “commercials” called Hedonic Treadmill in which Fadoul, as announcer, tells Lawler, playing a housewife, of new and improved ways to do laundry – starting in the first case with something better than pounding clothes on rocks and ending in the fourth with an app that distances the person doing wash from the wash altogether. This is cute, but the point is – what? That people would be better off pounding clothes on rocks than using, say, a washing machine (as in the intermediate offerings)? And how exactly are these sarcastic commercials different from a genuine commercial called The Sweet Shop, which Farris wrote for him, Lawler and Fadoul to perform as a thank-you to one of the sponsors of the show? This little 51-second promotional piece is cute in its own way and seems sincere. But where is the dividing line? Is there one?
Also cute are settings of copy from book dust jackets – another clever idea – in which music subtly comments on the promotional writing designed to interest potential readers. But again, the point is – what? Should there be no dust-jacket copy for, say, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility? Is there some less-promotional way to interest people who have never read the book in trying it? What is the alternative? (It is this dust-jacket setting that gets music by Handel, incidentally – music that stands out for its beauty, simplicity, and lack of any apparent ulterior motive.)
There are some places here where the music is eminently listenable: Canyon Serenade for flute, marimba and vibraphone is lovely (even though it lacks the visual element for which it was created: a dance); and Common Thread, the last track on the CD, is a protest song so typical in sound and topic that it comes perilously close to self-parody – it is all about greater unity through diversity, the evils of police, and that sort of ho-hum naïveté. It comes complete with audience sing-along, which is easy for listeners to do because the melody is both super-simple and super-catchy. The point of the song, though, is harder to grasp – something about the ills of society and the need to fix them through, what, singing? One thinks of Tom Lehrer’s 1960s ditty about the “folk song army” with its admonition, “Ready, aim – sing!” Apparently little has changed in this particular sort of music in the last half-century. For that matter, the desire to stage something that is societally aware (the current oh-so-trendy word is “woke”) and have it incorporate music as part of a larger experience has also changed little. Clickable is, on one level, pleasantly old-fashioned, for all its professions of being up to date and acerbic. On another level, in CD form, it is really a visual performance in search of a way to connect without its visuals – something it manages to do only intermittently and imperfectly. Taken as a whole, this “art of persuasion” is a good deal more artistic than it is persuasive.