New York cabaret star Salty Brine has become a cult legend in his hometown via The Living Record Collection, a series of performances that offer weird and wonderful juxtapositions between classic records and other works of popular culture. So there is, for instance, a show that mashes up Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Modest Mouse’s ‘Good News for People Who Love Bad News’, one that splices ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ to ‘Treasure Island’ and so on and so forth, with musician subject ranging from the Beatles to Adele.
And here the Collection makes its UK debut with ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, which brings together The Smiths’ 1986 indie-rock masterpiece ‘The Queen is Dead’ and Mary Shelley’s immortal horror story ‘Frankenstein’.
It’s a lot of fun. I think Brine’s objective is less to suggest that the album and the book are about the same things – they’re obviously not – but rather to sort of smush them together, stir in some bits of his own life, and see what connections come up.
In this case it’s poetry. Shelley was, of course, deeply connected to the Romantic poets; the album’s ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’ famously features Morrissey slagging off a record label boss who wrote ‘bloody awful poetry’; Brine puts in a running thread about his own bad, horny poetry that he used to process his sexual awakening after he moved to New York City from the Bible Belt.
It’s all very nice, with Brine sassing engagingly in an evening that essentially consists of fabulously acerbic autobiographical reminiscences and an amusing rattle through the plot of ‘Frankenstein’.
I personally didn’t quite feel it. Brine treats both record and book as fun baubles and the show never engages with the genius of either. That’s not to say it should be a po-facedly reverent tribute. But Brine never taps into the power of his subjects. He talks movingly about the tragedy that touched Shelley’s life… but he essentially makes ‘Frankenstein’ sound pretty goofy. ‘The Queen is Dead’s vaudevillian ditties, aching torch songs and humorous lyrics make it suitable for the cabaret treatment in many ways. But Brine never discusses the songs and why he likes them, and only talks about The Smiths in a bit where he (sadly correctly) notes that it’s a shame Morrissey is a horrible person these days. He also (happily correctly) stresses that Johnny Marr is a great guy, but it feels like a weird tribute to the genius who wrote all the music to not have a guitarist in the band – the record comes out of it well enough, but the tasteful string and piano-led arrangements don’t really truly account for how good it is.
A fun, frivolous evening performed with great skill, and Brine is a charismatic performer and wonderful singer who moves across the stage with balletic grace and boundless enthusiasm. But the way ‘Bigmouth…’ dances around great art while never seriously engaging with it ultimately feels like a cop-out.