Neil Hamburger Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners

[Drag City; 2008]

Styles: country-western, humor
Others: Garrison Keillor, Hank Williams, Tiny Tim, George Jones, Weird-Al

“Aaahhhemmm. What do you get when you mix lonesome pedal steel with the world’s greatest funnyman?”

[Crickets chirp from an otherwise silent audience. Slurp, slurp from a cocktail glass.]

“My new record of country songs.”

As time and scores of silent audiences have affirmed, comedian Gregg Turkington (a.k.a. Neil Hamburger) requires your complete engagement. If you’re willing to delve past his (intentionally) awful jokes, his bouts of throat-clearing into the microphone, his utter absence of grace, you’ll find an as rewarding and fully realized character as has ever taken the stage. He’s a character of paradox: awkward yet highly informed, apologetic yet unrelenting, morose yet stoic, vaudevillian and ultra-contemporary. Hamburger presents as a castaway Vegas-circuit performer: clad in a musty tux, moon-pie, dark-rimmed glasses, sparse, oily hair, a cocktail glass glued to his hand. His mouth carries weight, locked in a posture that suggests imminent tears. While his jokes meander from society to politics to pop culture, the recurrent theme of his performances is his own downtrodden, underappreciated life. And it’s only once we understand this that Neil Hamburger becomes funny: he tells bad jokes because his ex-wife cut him off in the parking lot, because clubs pay him with reheated food rather than money, because society is too disgraceful. He suffers for his audience, a slave for punishment, a character who recognizes the futility of his routine and yet wanders on stage each night to try it again.

In order to fully appreciate it, Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners requires this same level of listener investment, if not a degree of familiarity with Neil Hamburger himself. Here, straight-up jokes are traded for stories and diatribes, both set over an apt country-western ensemble that includes Dave Gleason (chief songwriter outside of Turkington), Atom Ellis (Dieselhed), Prairie Prince (The Tubes), Rachel Haden (vocal contributor for The Rentals and Weezer), and Joe Goldmark. This lonesome, dusty music, complete with great pedal steel guitar work, provides a suitable background for Hamburger’s perpetual woe. He laments his fleeting patriotism (“How Can I Be Patriotic (When They’ve Taken Away My Right to Cry”), America’s inability to recycle properly (“The Recycle Bin”), and his faltering life as a comic (“At Least I Got Paid,” “Three Piece Chicken Dinner,” “Garden Party II”). There are even moments when the music takes center stage: “Zipper Lips Rides Again” is an energetic Gleason-composed saloon-room romp, with clips of Hamburger’s “zipperlips” bit scattered throughout.

Country music and motif aside, this is still, unmistakably, a Neil Hamburger comedy album. “Three Piece Chicken Dinner” appropriately introduces the listener to Hamburger’s eternal plight: “When a man steps out upon a stage/ There’s a certain amount of pride that could be shattered/ When he gives and gives so that others may live/ Through his gift of laughter.” Hamburger goes on to explain that his only compensation for this nightly sacrifice is chicken. His seemingly misplaced anger in “The Recycle Bin” – “Not everything goes into the recycle bin/ You stupid pricks/ You can’t recycle Styrofoam” – decays into genuine vulnerability when he later lists among other un-recyclables, “A shattered dream/ A divorce/ Those are just waste.” This same vulnerability feeds the album’s centerpiece “Please Ask that Clown to Stop Crying.” It describes a clown, too depressed and drunk to perform at a little girl’s birthday party. In the song, he endures the children’s glares and whining for a time and is eventually inspired to stand-up and offer the children an earnest, though half-assed, performance. His diction here is perfect: summoning listener investment and then shattering it anticlimactically.

While he retains a devoted following, Hamburger is also an expert at gaining an impatient audiences’ disdain, making him comedy’s perennial sad clown. As Country Winners comes to an end with the lonesome vacation tale, “The Hula Maiden,” the image of Hamburger standing on the stage acting out his suffering is absent. And for that reason alone, this album slightly disappoints. These “songs” of Hamburger’s are incomplete without his posture, his face, his clothing, his stage (anti-) presence. Neil Hamburger is simply too complete a character to have his voice dissected away from his body. Still, if you’re gifted with a vivid imagination, or if you stare intently at his cover image, his plight will grip you: if you don’t laugh through the mundane, absurd, unfair, cruel circumstances of our world, then you’ll cry your eyes out trying.

1. Three Piece Chicken Dinner
2. The Recycle Bin
3. Please Ask that Clown to Stop Crying
4. Jug Town
5. How Can I Be Patriotic (When They’ve Taken Away My Right to Cry)
6. At Least I Was Paid
7. Thinkin’ it Over
8. Garden Party II
9. Zipper Lips Rides Again
10. The Hula Maiden

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