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MUSIC REVIEW

So this is what Gorey sounds like

Tiger Lillies, with the Kronos Quartet, bring the artist's macabre mirth to the stage in a brilliant show.

October 30, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Fire, smoke and ghoulish light provided the atmosphere outside Royce Hall on Tuesday. Fire, smoke and ghoulish light also provided the atmosphere inside the hall Tuesday night. An ashen, grotesque, Victorian-clad singer jabbered, "Fire! Fire! Fire!" in the crowded theater. "I like burning houses down," he sang with sullen cheeriness. "Start a fire," he raved, his voice leaping like falsetto flames, like a heroic Handel countertenor gone mad.

No question, this was in appalling taste. No question, it was also a brilliant performance. And no question, it was funny. A mostly young audience's laughter was nervous at first, but as the song got more outrageous, the laughter loosened up.

Was this catharsis or callousness?

Indeed, the string of no questions generated a string of questions, of moral dilemmas. Gallows humor is always nasty business, so why is it OK sometimes and not others? Isn't it even worse when it is about the other guy rather than about you? Does anybody not love the macabre mirth of Edward Gorey, that master illustrator of children dying horribly? Whither Halloween while Southern California burns?

The sullen singer was Martyn Jacques, mastermind of Tiger Lillies. The creepy three-piece British cabaret cult band -- creators of last year's delightfully sordid puppet-show sensation, "Shockheaded Peter" -- had returned Tuesday to venerate Gorey in concert as the UCLA Live Halloween offering. And this time, Tiger Lillies had the Kronos Quartet in tow.

In 1999, Gorey heard a Tiger Lillies recording and wrote the musicians to tell them that he thought they were the cat's pajamas and that he would like to collaborate with them. He then sent along a crate full of unpublished stuff.

Gorey died just as Jacques planned to fly to Cape Cod to meet with him. The material in the crate became the basis for "The Gorey End," 13 songs about hapless victims like the Hipdeep family, whose year begins with Cousin Fred found in the attic dead and ends when Amy's luck is rotten, as she loses her voice singing "Die Frau Ohne Schatten."

A master of overstatement, Jacques -- accompanied by drummer Adrian Hughes and bassist Adrian Stout -- shuffles on stage, his face in white paint, a porkpie hat over his balding head, a long, thin braid of hair in back reaching his waist. His expressions are a language of grimaces. His voice, spoken and sung, remains in the strained soprano range. His enunciation is clipped and proper. He alternates between listless piano, listless accordion and listless ukulele. He is Queen Victoria's nightmare.

Each Gorey song is a miniature vignette of doom. There is the besotted mother of Florabelle, the girl ripped to pieces by a pack of wild dogs. A chandelier weeps every time a waltz or tango is played. Omletta Sniggles found Jesus on her windshield, made a fortune from the miracle, built a house with a smile, carpeted it in a shaggy pile -- and died.

Sung deadpan -- the controlled violence usually remaining just under the surface though occasionally breaking out in hilarious hysteria -- these songs are simple musically but tell their tales tartly.

The Kronos provided atmosphere, playing a lot of tremolos. The irony here was that this hip quartet acted as musical straight man, one more Victorian ornament in a grotesque entourage.

A 45-minute song cycle, "The Gorey End" was preceded in the first half of the concert by short individual sets from Kronos and Tiger Lillies.

Kronos' four selections began with its delectable arrangement of an old Bollywood number, "Tonight Is the Night," and concluded with a rhapsodic piece, "The Fly Freezer," written for the quartet by the Icelandic pop band Sigur Ros.

Tiger Lillies ended its four numbers with its ecstatic call to burn the house down, tapping directly into the same troubling fascination that keeps our eyes glued to the extraordinary pictures of raging infernos. We are rotten to the core, the band tells us, and there is nothing to be done about it.

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