With a primal howl, The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina descend into the funky beats and vinyl insularity of “Hey Everybody,” the first track in their latest release Little King and the Salamander (Demos), a fourteen song look into the band at their most raw, unrefined and unfiltered. After a minute of throttling us with a muscular bassline penetrated by a bluesy lead guitar, we enter “What Fools We Can Be,” a patient, easygoing acoustic number that builds itself around a distant vocal and supple percussion. The group’s aptly self-titled song continues the light, 60’s pop vibe of the first two tracks but incorporates a Donovan-style playfulness that is decidedly more methodical than it appears to be on the surface. The jazzy drums, whisper-soft vocals and sly strings dueling with each other in a sublime, stoned fashion in many ways summarize the identity of The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina.
While familiar melodies come alive with a vicious cerebral twist in Little King and the Salamander (Demos), the eccentricities of the band aren’t limited to their instrumental arrangements alone. The stoic, black and white verses juxtaposed with grainy acoustic guitar in “White Light and Lullabies” demonstrates their keen ability to utilize studio techniques to emphasize the mood of the music. The harmonies here, and to a lesser degree in the more exotic “Particle Craze” and the moderate alternative rock of “She’ll Do Anything,” aren’t drowned out in the master mix or ruined with an overwhelming pop/rock varnish; instead, they’re placed at center stage and every element of the production is shaped as to accommodate their grandiosity.
“Together” is admittedly one of the shorter songs on Little King and the Salamander (Demos), but it’s far from throw-away filler. This is actually one of the most physical and jarring tunes here, both in its tempo and in its straight up sonic intensity. It might have been a little more effective if it would have been placed after the extended jam in “I’ll Be (Kisses at Your Door)” rather than right before it in the track listing, but to be quite honest this LP isn’t one that demands an uninterrupted listen every time you want to appreciate The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina and their unique blend of retro rock and prolific, prose-driven contemporary pop. Small bursts of chaos like “Together” and “Jeepers Creepers” do keep the flow steady and set us up for more elaborate songs like the superfuzz proto-metal “Definitely Not My Underwear,” the mod revivalist “Thinking of You,” and the stylish album closer “I Have Always Been Here” wonderfully.
As hard as this record rocks, there is just as much acoustic, folkie opulence to be appreciated in its content in addition to the uncaged metallic might. “Slip Away (Dreamin’ Again)” was probably my favorite song from the whole of the album; its brittle construction is challenged by the weightiness of the vocals, all while the drums pitter-patter with a charming hesitance that never seems to get old, no matter how many times I hear it. Similarly, the compositional discordancy of “Fade Into the Night” is transformed into an endearing melody by the time we reach the swaying verses, reminiscent more of jazz music than rock. From top to bottom, Little King and the Salamander (Demos) is a thoroughly engaging album that fires on all cylinders and isn’t afraid to celebrate its fascinating rough edges and splendidly conflicted aesthetical personality. That, put quite simply, is essentially the definition of making authentic rock n’ roll in a post-British Invasion world.