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Harry Shearer is in a topical zone with album 'Can't Take a Hint'

The comedian's satirical collection takes aim at clerical sex abuse, the BP oil spill and Rupert Murdoch and features the likes of Dr. John and Jane Lynch.

August 27, 2012|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • Harry Shearer has a way of seeing beyond the common when it comes to comedy, satire, radio commentary, acting and, once again, as a musician with the upcoming release of his latest album, "Can't Take a Hint."
Harry Shearer has a way of seeing beyond the common when it comes to comedy,… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

You can't blame Harry Shearer for feeling a twinge of regret just before the release of his latest satirical album of topical songs, "Can't Take a Hint."

"Pussy Riot and 'legitimate rape' in the news in the same week?" Shearer said, his eyes widening in disbelief as he leaned back into a love seat on the enclosed porch of his longtime home near the beach in Santa Monica. "I feel a little cheated."

But like anyone who's ever worked on an album — or any creative endeavor, for that matter — he also appreciates the pragmatic wisdom of Leonardo da Vinci's famous observation that "Art is never finished, only abandoned."

The 68-year-old comedian — who's also, among other things, a voice actor ("The Simpsons"), on-screen actor ("This Is Spinal Tap") and radio show host — has never had a shortage of subject matter to lampoon.

While his previous musical ventures include 2008's "Songs of the Bushmen," which had fun with George W. Bush's two terms as president, Shearer now takes aim at foibles in various corners of the world, from the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ("Macondo") to ongoing revelations about sexual abuse by members of the clergy ("Deaf Boys").

Then there's his ode to media mogul Rupert Murdoch ("When the Crocodile Cries"), a gentle disco-funk track replete with didgeridoo solo. "He'll eat his friends. Leave 'em in a pile. And then he'll flash his toothiest smile," he sings with an outback drawl. "Croc's got a temper. Everyone's aware. He's into sharing. As long as it's all his share"

"Can't Take a Hint" was recorded with help from guests, including Dr. John, British soul singer Alice Russell, "Glee" actress-singer Jane Lynch and, as often has been the case with Shearer's musical forays, his wife, Welsh jazz-pop singer and songwriter Judith Owen.

"To me, an album never really takes on a shape until after it's done and settled," Shearer said. "But this feels kind of like a little variety show, where I have various guests come to the mike to do these little ditties of mine."

There's also an impressive variety to each of his mini-commentaries, from the Sinatra-Basie-esque big-band swing of "A Few Bad Apples" to the country funk-cum-hip-hop grind of "Touch My Junk" to the a cappella doo-wop-meets-Gregorian chant of "Deaf Boys."

Shearer himself plays bass on many of the tracks — he wasn't just pretending in his role as Derek Smalls, Spinal Tap's trapped-in-a-giant-seedpod bassist in Rob Reiner's celebrated 1984 mockumentary.

Asked how he determines which subjects best lend themselves to satirical songs rather than comedic bits on his weekly radio program "Le Show," satirical pieces he writes for various outlets or videos posted on his Internet forum "My Damn Channel," Shearer said it typically comes down to one thing: "It's words.

"I have to have singable words or phrases," he said. "Like with the BP ongoing disaster: the name of the well, Macondo. It sounds so romantic — you could see somebody having pangs of nostalgia for something with a name like that. That just fueled the song. It's not going to happen with the other well called Deep Water Horizon.

"And then there's the Bridge to Nowhere," he said, referring to his song on which Owen offers her best Sarah Palin impression in the tale of the aborted Alaskan bridge project that became a focal point of debate in the 2008 presidential campaign.

"Apart from its political connotation," he said, "the phrase is one you can just roll around in your mouth, it has so many associations."

After the first of the year, he plans to embark on a tour supporting the album. His previous two CDs were nominated for Grammy Awards, but it's anybody's guess what kind of reception awaits "Can't Take a Hint," which was released worldwide Monday in digital form — perhaps not coincidentally in time for 2012 Grammy consideration.

When the subject came up, it wasn't "The Simpsons" that Shearer quoted, even though the show on which he has long provided voices for billionaire Montgomery Burns, his lackey personal assistant Waylon Smithers and a host of other characters has periodically taken potshots at the music industry award ceremony.

Instead, he draws from "For Your Consideration," the 2006 mock film documentary about awards shows, directed by his Spinal Tap and "A Mighty Wind" cohort Christopher Guest.

"As my character in 'For Your Consideration' said, 'It was an honor just to be almost nominated,'" Shearer said. "I really hate to quote myself, but there you go."

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randy.lewis@latimes.com

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