Upon first listen of The Last Laugh, a familiarity irked me. At first it was unplaceable, until I realized that if the sum total of all of the tracks on the Stealing Beauty soundtrack (Liz Phair, John Lee Hooker, Mazzy Star, Hooverphonic, Cocteau Twins, Sam Phillips, Lori Carson) were mushed together, you’d get Joker’s Daughter, the collaboration between überproducer Danger Mouse and newcomer Helena Costas. Once that similarity is drawn, the album becomes fairly captivating as the myriad styles dance in and out.
How can one dislike a record that’s so absurd it references an orange and chocolate biscuit in a track title? Regardless, “Under the Influence of Jaffa Cakes” has a mild mid-90s nostalgia to it, akin to the light vocals of Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo) or Linda Hopper (Magnapop). It rips a guitar riff that has that sexy chord transition from fingers inching their way up the neck of the guitar… met with the usual bloops/bleeps of something one expects from Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse.
Although likely to annoy from the listing itself (“The Running Goblin”? Seriously? Is this Men Without Hats?), songs themselves are much more complex with Burton behind the helm. Lyrics, the work of Costas, are playful but often creep into that ‘precious’ area that 14-year old girls seem to swim in: “I’m still waiting for my yellow teapot/and my flying carpet,” making you wonder if the protagonist has a mortgage or adult responsibilities.
Some highlights include “Jessie the Goat,” which sees Costas singing in everyday Cypriot Greek, a callback to her familial origins and is a nice ethno-contrast to the very Anglican renaissance faire imagery that is thrown around elsewhere. Moreover, “The Bull Bites Back” is a danceable little pop number that’s just begging to be clapped along to.
As it was collaborated on part-time over a period of years, there is a feeling that it is not cohesive, and that the most predominant element that joins the tracks is the ethereal quality of Costas’ voice. An important question is– would the The Last Laugh actually be performable without 15 people on stage? Would the lightness come across –or would the elements morph from their delicate transience as crafted on the album into something more rigid and marketable?
The Last Laugh that could be seen as an contemporary interpretation of the folk tradition as performed by Shirley Collins, Veda Hille, and Vashti Bunyan. It’s interesting, but its significance will be settled by time. It is not easy to put into situational music: not quite for driving, napping or cooking, it sometimes ventures into dance territory, but frequently wanders back into a nervous kind of anxiety that is not palatable for long periods of time. The Last Laugh is intriguing and commendable, but occasionally off-putting, or maybe I just haven’t read enough C.S. Lewis.