The popular songs that Tom Lehrer wrote, sang, and recorded during the 1950s and 1960s are classics of social and political satire that remain as pithy and relevant today as they were more than a half century ago. Despite their undeniable melodic charm, the words are the main focus. So what purpose do clever and sophisticated a cappella vocal arrangements of Tom Lehrer songs serve when you can’t consistently make out the words?
Take Lehrer’s witty retelling of the Oedipus Rex legend, or Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, for example. The well-articulated tenor and bass voices are spot-on, yet the words turn to mush as rendered by a countertenor in long legato lines. In Pollution, one singer characterizes the text with appropriate bite, while another singer’s affected pronunciation and clueless phrasing is utterly beside the point.
On the other hand, Lehrer’s setting of the table of elements to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” comes to vivid life through the ensemble’s dazzling vocal virtuosity; you shouldn’t expect anything less from a patter song. While The Queen’s Six delightfully ham it up with She’s My Girl’s doo-wop phrases and sundry sound effects, their “classical” phrasing is hardly idiomatic. Consequently, Lehrer’s sarcasm fails to come across.
At least Signum provides printed texts, but that’s like having a comedy album with a libretto. In short, The Queen’s Six don’t so much “murder” these songs as they make them sound beautiful. If you want Tom Lehrer all dolled up and prettified, buy this release, but don’t expect to laugh often.