Jason Trachtenburg also knows the intrinsic artistic value of a stranger's Kodak collection. He's the patriarch/singer/songwriter/guitarist/perennially loose-cannon interview subject and cellphone-phobe (more on that later) in the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. They're a New York-based vaudeville pop act that includes Tina Pina (mother, costume designer, slide projector engineer, TFSP concept originator) and 12-year-old Rachel (daughter, drummer, current fashion-rag sweetheart). Together this brood spins Kodachrome into gold, performing ditties that give salvaged slides new narrative humor.
The group exists within New York's anti-folk scene, although it originated in 2000 in Seattle, land of bountiful estate sales. Jason sings original story lines over images of, say, a "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959" the title of the Family's first song, inspired by Tina's garage-sale grab while Rachel bangs out a beat and Tina flips images to the music. Subjects change from vacations to corporate training presentations, and everything gets a droll coating in Jason's nasally delivery. "They're all sociological studies about humanity," Jason says of the songs.
Sidewalk-sale gems are relatively rare in New York, but the kindness of fans occasionally offers the clan new source material. "People come to the shows and bring us slides sometimes boxes and boxes of them," Jason says. But if you arrive bearing gifts, make sure your shots fit the appointed time period. "We characteristically scrutinize and dissect the lifestyle policies of the '50s, '60s, and '70s," he continues, speaking from a gas station pay phone in Asheville, N.C. He calls those years the "golden age of slide projection photography," casting off the '80s as the "revival that's been going on as long as the '80s have been over." Much of the Family's aesthetic fits well with those early eras the cohesive traveling family unit; Rachel's home schooling; Jason's unsurprising admission that he prefers vinyl to CDs, as the latter has "killed the message and the art form." Just don't get him started on Cingular.
"I don't talk on cellphones or those cordless phones," Jason says at the start of our chat, a subject he launches back into often. "I get instantly dizzy, not to mention it's an inferior format to catch every word. You should have to use a land line to successfully transmit every relevant piece of information." He trails off on tangents about brain-cancer studies before calling out to a fellow traveler who couldn't hear him because, ironically, she was on her cellphone and adding, "You have no idea how these things are ruining communication in our society. God! People are isolated, and the oldest form of communication, yelling, doesn't even work anymore."
Fortunately Jason's not in a screamo band. The Family spokesman may be a character, but watching a Trachtenburg performance is a hysterical, albeit neurotic vacation one that's taken fellow troubadours Nellie McKay, Regina Spektor, and Langhorne Slim along for the ride, as the singers' glowing testimonies on the new Trachtenburg DVD, Off and On Broadway, display.
"We've realized that we have the ability to show people things that they haven't seen before," concludes Jason, "and simultaneously attach it to a pop song in a pop format. Which means we fall, um, somewhere between Sonny and Cher and Death Cab for Cutie."