May 2001

The Bobs - Coaster
PAC 2900
Released: 2001

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]It is hard to believe that The Bobs have been performing a capella professionally for two decades. Their Grammy-nominated rendition of The Beatles’ "Helter Skelter" and the other ten tracks on their first LP, The Bobs, on Kaleidoscope Records are still ages beyond most popular music, musically and, in many cases, lyrically. Although the three men and one woman who make up The Bobs are visually almost unrecognizable as the same four pictured on the back of that first album, their newest collection, Coaster, instantly announces that it is the same group we’re hearing.

The album opens with "Caravan." The group imitates musical instruments in this piece, as they do in many of their other songs. Next comes "The Drive Time Blues," reminiscent of James Taylor’s a capella "Traffic Jam" but lyrically and socially more elaborate: "Am I driving to work or working to drive? / Creeping along just barely alive? / Early in the morning there’s a traffic warning / But it can’t slam through my personal fog …." (Note the ironic reference to Chuck Berry’s "Roll Over, Beethoven" -- "Early in the mornin’ I’m a-givin’ you a warnin’….")

The lead singer laments an existence in which the vehicle that has revolutionized life in his society and is supposed to take him somewhere is instead where he is stuck "with NPR" when he needs "… a shock from that morning jock / With news, and talk, and album rock…." Each verse ends, "Did I feed the dog? Yes, I fed the dog." In his helpless state, in a car he pays for so he can make money to continue paying for it, at least he has been able to meet that crucial part of his responsibility to another living being.

Irony and irony within irony within references to other popular tunes inform this unique group’s satirical take on many cultural matters. "She Made Me Name You Earl" winks broadly in the direction of Johnny Cash’s "A Boy Named Sue." Get it? "Earl" rhymes with "girl." The song also refers to a popular sexual-identity trope not yet coined at the time of "Sue" in this wonderful refrain: "Women and men, yang and yin / Different but still the same / Mars and Venus, vulva and penis / After all, what’s in a name?"

The Bobs’ astonishing version of The Doors’ "Light My Fire," in many ways more like classical chamber music than like rock or pop, has to be heard to be believed. And for listeners already familiar with the group’s earlier work, it is worth noting that this new collection revisits "Cowboy Lips" from The Bobs, perhaps as part of the group’s 20th-anniversary celebration. They call the new version "Barber Lips." Though I love the original, the lyrics and music are wider-ranging and more ambitious here.

The disc also includes several songs dubbed "The Turtle Cycle" (inspired by "Turtle Boy" by Josh Kornbluth). The first in the cycle, "A Vacant Stare," includes: "I don’t care about their need / I only want to feed / They won’t leave me alone." Next, in "Turtle Girl": "At the vivarium I never knew you well / You stayed within your shell / We were all younger then / No telling gals from gents / An age of innocence." Thinking of The Bobs as The Fun Four, as I do, does not mean that theirs is not a serious kind of fun -- much is communicated. But it’s communicated with great wit and the kind of superb vocal nuance and timing that lasting music is made of.