Shelby Bryant

Cloud-Wow Music (Smells Like)

As pop music goes, Shelby Bryant's solo debut, Cloud-Wow Music, is more Sid and Marty Krofft than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In fact, consider this review an impassioned appeal to a big TV network to give Bryant his own surreal kids show. Cloud-Wow's insert photo -- featuring a spaced-out Bryant in a lace ascot -- proves the camera will love him, and the songs inside mix whimsy and pathos in a way that's perfect for pre-adolescents. Who could resist such huggable characters as "Peebly McNownow" and "Thurmond Crim"? Track seven is even titled "Totally Sigmund."

Cloud-Wow Music isn't all goofy escapism, however. While there's plenty of humor, the hideous specter of retro irony is nowhere to be seen. Bryant, who is a Memphis schoolteacher, seems to instill primal awe in his songs, rather than the false comfort of nostalgia. In the opener, "Hello So Fine," Bryant croons, "Everything is lovely and it happened to be lovely by surprise," over jaunty piano worthy of vintage Harry Nilsson. A less sincere artist might descend into camp, but Bryant's knowing innocence and surprising wordplay ring true. In "The Walk," a suitor pleads, "I just floated by to say hello and gaze out of your window," but then let's slip that he's not sure if he's wooing "Mary ... or is it Shari?"

Bryant's clever arrangements add to the feel of the musical fantasia. New wave keyboards, held over from Bryant's days in the wry pop trio the Clears, provide the sonic animation of a cracked cartoon. Xylophone and cello flurries transport "You're a Star" further into Walt Disney territory, while "Inchworm" -- written by Broadway composer Frank Loesser and also covered by '60s group the Sandpipers -- slips into disturbed falsetto voices and samples from The Wizard of Oz. Later, Bryant pays tribute to Daniel Johnston's childlike songwriting with a touching lo-fi version of "Wedding."

On the final vocal track, "Never Wrong," Bryant asserts, "A song can never go wrong/ Because it is set to music/ Just like everything is." It's a nice sentiment -- and one that today's TV-glued kids are in dire need of.

 
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