The 100 Best Songs of 2011

Satellite.  Wickedly catchy Ray Davies-style Britpop with one of the New York rocker’s most clever, casually dismissive lyrics.

The Adventures of Ethical Man. Ethical Man is a cartoon character; he battles even more cynical underwear heroes in this extremely funny powerpop tune by the NYC literate rock songwriter.

Made of Holes. This is another of the songs here that’s so new that it hasn’t been youtubed yet, a characteristically metaphorically-charged janglerock tune.

Walter Ego in Williamsburg

by delarue

As busking territory goes, real estate doesn’t get any more prime than the L train platform at Bedford Avenue: sometimes there’s more than one act playing there. You can tell who got there first by who’s playing closest to the Bedford Avenue exit. Last night, a little after 8, there was an enjoyably energetic blues duo – guitar and banjo – who never told the crowd who they were, but might call themselves Up We Go – playing boisterous versions of stuff like St. James Infirmary and Fool’s Paradise. They cut out at about half past the hour, right around when Walter Ego showed up.

Now there’s two kinds of buskers. Some of them are really good, because they’re always playing. The other kind – memorably chronicled by Robin Aigner in her classic The Mediocre Busker – simply won’t grow anymore, and probably shouldn’t be doing this.

Walter Ego is the the first kind. Some things he’ll tell you:

1) He wasn’t the first Walter Ego (the first was a ventriloquist’s dummy), but he is the first human one (there are several others, most recently a goth songwriter from New Brunswick with a Dostoyevsky fixation).

2) His club gigs are theatrical, with props and lots of audience participation, something that translates to his busking. Most recently, a handful of kids on the subway hired him to make up a song on the spot, using their lyrics: apparently it was a success.

3) He was a mainstay of the Banjo Jim’s scene; with that club tragically having bitten the dust, he and several others who called that place home have moved a little further west, to Otto’s Shrunken Head.

His songs are funny, and full of puns. It was nasty and muggy outside, and just as nasty down in the subway, but he fought off the heat, shifting around restlessly, projecting with more of an uneasy rasp than he typically would than if he didn’t have to sing and play his guitar over the trains’ rumble and squealing brakes. The catchiest and most tongue-in-cheek song he played was a bouncy, bluesy pop song called Don’t Take Advice from Me. Another darkly comedic one was a country song, The Magician, told from the point of view of a killjoy, “a magician who makes magic disappear.” The two darkest ones were I Am the Glass, and another possibly called Down the Hole, both instances where he took a metaphor and stretched it to its logical, cruel extreme. Some of his songs, like The Immorality Detection Machine, and Two Kinds of People, have a political edge, but in a general rather than specific way (you can picture your least favorite rightwing nut in either of these and they’ll make perfect sense). By half past nine, there were fewer trains and consequently fewer refreshing blasts of air from the Brooklyn-bound side, so it was time to call it a night. Walter Ego has some dates coming up at Otto’s; watch this space.

Walter Ego Defies the Snowstorm at Banjo Jim’s

Tuesday night the snow was swirling but Banjo Jim’s was packed and Walter Ego was onstage. This was the New York Walter Ego, not the cover band from the Isle of Man, the Dutch rapper or the disco guy from the 90s. Ironically, though this Walter Ego is arguably the most technologically savvy one of the whole crew, he’s also the one who doesn’t have a web presence: then again, there’s cachet in flying so far under the radar. With his icily sardonic vocals, pun-drenched lyrics and catchy, artsy pop melodies, he delivered a characteristically theatrical set that was all too brief. There’s a lot of surrealism in his lyrics, and that translates to his stage show. Just like last time here, he brought along an inflatable octopus, who’d had the wind knocked out of him, but one of the musicians in the bar “brought him back to life by blowing him,” as he explained. He also had a vintage die-cast model of the Beatles Yellow Submarine, although Ringo was stuck in “up” position. All these crazy props have a function: where Sybarite5 let their ipod shuffle choose what will be in the set, Walter Ego lets the props do it oldschool style by literally pulling the songs out of a hat: no two sets with this guy are ever the same.

This was a particularly good one. His opening song combined a country sway with a somewhat majestic Jeff Lynne style post-Beatles melody, about a “magician who makes magic disappear.” This particular killjoy can’t resist the urge to reduce everything to its lowest terms, literally – where somebody else hears a tune, he hears arithmetic. The theme echoed in the bluesy snarl of Don’t Take Advice from Me – “What use is one more yeasayer to boost your self-esteem when I can tell you the ugly truth that wakes you from your dream.” The high point was a rivetingly suspenseful version of the metaphorically charged I Am the Glass, the cruelly vengeful tale of an egotist who smashes everything around him, only to come face to face with the windshield in the last verse. The next song was the genuinely hilarious, Phil Ochs-ish Adventures of Ethical Man, a sanctimonious superhero who is either either “a saint or an idiot,” never missing an opportunity to show the world what a good guy he is…unless it takes too much effort.

“It costs a lot of money to make these props. I have to repurpose them when I can,” Walter Ego explained, bringing back the octopus to keep the set going with a sarcastic, bluesy number that quietly but forcefully mocked racism and extremism, in a vein that evoked LJ Murphy (which shouldn’t come as a surprise: Walter Ego served as Murphy’s bass player for a time a few years ago). He closed with The Immorality Detection Machine, which managed to be as Beatlesque as it was Orwellian. As funny and provocative as his songs are, this guy’s shtick would go over just as well at something like the Fringe Festival. Mystie Chamberlin, another songwriter with a considerable sense of humor, was next, but it was time to race for the M14C bus at 10th St. because even in a snowstorm, it’s a lot quicker than walking to the train at Union Square. Watch this space for upcoming Walter Ego showdates because it’s the only place on the web you’ll see them, at least for now.

Literate Rocker Walter Ego’s Big Understated Comeback

Walter Ego came out of retirement in a big way last night at Banjo Jim’s. The house was packed for a multiple-songwriter bill: Walter, who by his own admission hadn’t played a gig since 1995, was the star, solo on acoustic guitar, grabbing a restless crowd and holding them quiet for the duration of his too-brief set. Vintage, classic era Elvis Costello is the obvious influence: this guy’s songs are loaded with puns and double entendres, set to catchy melodies which are equal parts Beatles and Elvis C. with some blues thrown in. That there would be blues in the set was no surprise, considering that Walter used to be LJ Murphy’s bass player. There was also a surprising theatricality: he’d break what was obviously an intense focus to give his sidekick, a blow-up plastic octopus named Paul, a chance to reach into a bucket and pull a strip of paper with a song title on it. Paul didn’t do a good job, so there were even more unexpected changes in the set list. Walter went on wearing a wig, but that quickly came off, as did a plastic top hat during the set’s last song (it was muggy outside and only somewhat better inside). Undeterred, he sang with a low, dryly icy intensity.

The blues songs were a lot more interestingly assembled than just a simple 1-4-5; the rockers also had a counterintuitive feel. One of the best of the early songs chronicled the Adventures of Ethical Man, a superhero who’s a bigger phony than Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent ever dreamed of being, at least as alter egos. The bluesy, sarcastic Don’t Take Advice from Me was a ruthless sendup of anyone who enjoys being a killjoy: it wouldn’t be out of place in the LJ Murphy catalog. Walter closed with a characteristically lyrically rich number about some sort of hypocrisy-detection machine sold via infomercial, and how it can be modified if the owner becomes a born-again. Which doesn’t remotely do justice to its clever barrage of lyrics. Watch this space for future shows.

By the way, there are three other Walter Egos: a cover band from the Isle of Man, a Dutch rapper and a British disco producer. But this guy – whose first album, from the 90s, is a genuine NYC rock artifact – beat all of them to it.