Music Review: Victor & Penny And Their Loose Change Orchestra's 'Live At The Living Room Theatre'

Sep 1, 2015

Victor & Penny and their Loose Change Orchestra
"Live at the Living Room Theatre"

Many a young band could learn a thing or two about rocking from the uke, acoustic guitar, clarinet and bass combo featured on this live set.

Just listen to how Victor & Penny and the Loose Change Orchestra handle the Cole Porter opener. The bass and guitar cohere into a visceral crunch. The clarinet tests all the ceiling pressure points, barely holding back from blowing the roof. This record’s about maintaining levels of excitement all too rare in our world-weary culture.

Musicians Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane introduced their Victor & Penny aliases with a 2011 collection conceptually titled Antique Pop. Since then they’ve proven themselves much more than a novelty act, with a second studio collection and a third studio project now being crowd-sourced (they're hoping for a January release). Both multi-instrumentalists with rock backgrounds, Freling and McGrane have built a strong case that it's possible to make something new by reaching as far back as American pop allows.

Primarily, they do this by focusing on that Tin Pan Alley moment when black and white artists, and male and female performers, began to collapse boundaries with the rudiments of what we would one day call jazz. The fundamental ingredients — blue notes, syncopation, call and response between parts, and wide open spaces for improvisation — are still with us, and they use this elemental approach to collapse the space between then and now.

With a modern audience in mind, they play with guitar and mic effects and they push the sound to excesses that feel utterly contemporary. Because Freling and McGrane also have a healthy dose of theater in their backgrounds, they embrace the theatrical possibilities in the act, challenging all sorts of mythology that hobbles a lot of rock and roll.

Case in point: the persistent rock myth that original music somehow wins out against music learned through the community. Victor & Penny contribute just two originals — the sultry “Day Off Boogie” and the surreal “The Cat, She Played Piano” — to an album of mostly covers. But in taking on Cole Porter, Scatman Crothers, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and local favorite Howard Iceberg, they make each of those songs their own. Moreover, they argue that these songwriters have comparable relevance in today’s pop culture.

One of the real charms here is how often they embrace the music's humor without allowing the performance to degenerate into a goof. “Indiscreet’s” laugh-out-loud theatrics might tip precariously toward silliness, but the dueling guitar and clarinet manage to make it sound dangerous.

Here’s the thing. By embracing the history of show business inherent in American pop, Victor & Penny manage to sell a double-edged sword of a set. On one hand, they might be all Brilliantine and greasepaint, as innocent and nostalgic as our myths of the past. But under that surface, they also come off like Bonnie & Clyde, assuring listeners that “A Smile Will Go A Long Long, Way” while warning that “Dirt Dishin’ Daisy” paid a rough price for talking too much. There’s an outlaw love-on-the-run quality to songs like “Day Off Boogie” and “If It Ain’t Love.” And there’s an overt embrace of dysfunction in the kitchenette hookup “Salt” (a new number by songwriters Theo Bishop and Benny Chadwick as elemental and classic as anything here).

By the time this closes with the Star Wars “Cantina Band” theme, it makes sense that this combo sees a galaxy far, far away as logical territory for exploration. Victor & Penny’s elemental approach blithely ignores conventional boundaries, but even more importantly, it calls into question many false distinctions that keep modern music fans from setting sights on equally distant vistas.