Take a dash of Herb Albert, a pinch of David Bowie, add a handful of Andy Kaufman, and you’ve got Comic Tales of Tragic Heartbreak – and their new album, One Car Crash. Added bonus? The Leonard Cohen/Tom Waits/Frank O’Hara-inspired lyrics, and tunes like something found on Stiff Records in 1979.
The magic and beauty of Comic Tales of Tragic Heartbreak lies both in the depth of the music and the ability to connect (both emotionally and physically) with the audience.
Comic Tales of Tragic Heartbreak knows all about accidents. Of birth and place. Of Top-40 radio heard through summer screen windows. Of lonely faces smiling in discos during blizzards. What’s a young criminal to do? Read every book he can get his hands on, play the Breathe Easy Method over and over on a rented trumpet, lose a thousand fistfights till he finally wins one. Ride a stolen bike, hop a Peter Pan bus, grab a hitchhiked ride…something, anything, to get out. Years later, redemption at last. Robert Whaley is just about where he should be. Compared to everyone from David Bowie to David Byrne, he’s been welcoming audiences into a private world of enchantment and debauchery, and oh, the influences are clear: Anderson (words and emotions), Fosse (dance and controlled hysteria), Artaud and O’Hara (poetry, more hysteria).
Whaley had a lot of practice riding the line between rock n’ roll, performance art, and stand up comedy as front man for the Niagaras, a legendary force of Manhattan’s live music scene, back when a wild child could dance on bar tops and swing from light fixtures without getting banned, except for when he was. No wonder the attraction included a salacious following – everyone from Ethan Hawke to Kevin Spacey to the good people in Anthrax.
As a songwriter, Whaley has covered a lot of ground and has shown range through a number of outlets. He cowrote the original score for the feature film, Joe the King, starring Hawke, and has also written for the stage – his rock musical Wrong Way Up ran for months off-Broadway at NYC’s Zipper Theater. He is currently working on Selling Sacred Objects, a musical adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s prescient 1908 novel, Buried Alive.
One Car Crash, the second release from Comic Tales of Tragic Heartbreak, reflects an obsession with pre-1974 soul, 60s garage rock, and the old masters (Rodgers and Hart, Tom Waits, Bill Evans). Jazz pianist Mara Rosenbloom sets the tone with her loose/attacking touch on grand piano and Rhodes. Pete O’Connell lends a sophisticated drive and counterpoint, as both bassist and coarranger. Whaley’s long-time collaborator, lead guitarist and singer, Tony Grimaldi, shines with masterful harmonies and chiming guitar lines. And Chris Schultz, percussionist with Blue Man Group, shimmers, cascades, and of course, rocks.