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By now, with any luck, you've probably at least heard of The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. They've opened for They Might Be Giants, done a few national tours, toured the UK, played at South By Southwest a couple times, have some number of documentaries about them (when they left Seattle, some filmmakers were making one about the move; when they were in NYC, they had one that was posted to their site for a while, they're apparently in Keeping Time, though I guess that's not about them per se; who knows how many others!), been on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and a whole bunch of other stuff. They reissued their first album on Bar/None. They've been featured on MTV and NPR. They've done so much stuff I don't even know all they've done anymore. They've probably figured out Cold Fusion by now, the way they're going.
In case you haven't, or if you've heard of them without hearing about them: They take slideshows from estate sales (and other sources) and write songs about them. For example, the song they did on Conan is "Look At Me", a song about two Retired Army Nurses from Wedgwood (a neighborhood in Seattle). Other songs they've done include "Mountain Trip To Japan, 1959" (about a couple people who are obsessed with death and go on many trips and vacations), "Tomatoes" (about Tomatoes, Charles Manson, and Charles Manson's Little Baby), and one of their biggest productions, the Mini-Rock Opera "OPNAD Contribution Study Committee Report" (based off a bunch of slides they found from a McDonald's Corporate Meeting held in 1976 about advertising). It's really cool, and really rockin'.
Even though the visuals are a strong component, the songs can stand on their own. The original issue of their first album was just the songs (the new version has lots of bonus features including slideshows and whatnot), and it worked just as well as the live show. You don't actually need the slides. They just make it that much better.
Anyway, the Trachtenburgs are a real-live family act. Jason Trachtenburg (the dad) plays acoustic guitar and keyboards and sings, Tina Piña Trachtenburg (the mom) operates the slide projector, and Rachel Trachtenburg (the kid) drums (very well, in fact) and does backup vocals. You shouldn't let the age of Rachel (she's 11) throw you, though – she's a great drummer. She's better than a lot of drummers my age. (She's way better than me, say, but that's just because I was born without a sense of rhythm. But she's also way, way better than a lot of people my age who are actually employed as drummers. Everyone pretty much has enough sense to not allow me anywhere near a drum kit.) And as any drummer can tell you, it's a pain in the neck to both drum and sing at the same time, but she does it! And, she's learning bass guitar as well, and has even sat in with bands like King Missile on bass!
The songwriting often reminds me of Tom Lehrer, although not quite as caustic. The Trachtenburgs often opt for a more subtle approach; a lot of the humor is in the juxtaposition of what they're singing and the slides. In "Eggs", for example, the first half of the slides are of people who look like the Brady Bunch hunting for eggs on Easter, and the second half are photos from US Military Training Programs, resulting in the audience seeing various Vietnam-era pictures over lyrics about eggs. Some lyrics: "Do not hesitate/move shoot communicate/when you're looking for/eggs!". The slides that go with these lyrics are (each picture is on screen for roughly the length of the line): Military guys looking around/Educational slide with "Move-Shoot-Communicate" listed as the three things to remember to stay alive when you're In The Shit/Military guys in a row with guns looking at the ground/An egg".
I know it doesn't work as well when you're writing about it, but I hope that gives a vague suggestion of what it's like. Of course, the best way to know is to actually go down to a show and experience it yourself.
I first got into them about a couple months before they left Seattle, although I was able to catch them last year when they came back to Seattle on tour. It was really great because it provided a great opportunity to see how they've grown. For example, Rachel's gotten a lot better on the drums, which is pretty remarkable, since she was really great before. But now, she's awesome. Jason's gotten better too – he's always been sort of nervous on stage, but he's gotten less so and he's more practiced on the songs. And his songwriting's gotten much better too – he was always a great songwriter, but his newer songs seem even more accomplished and fit together even better as pop songs. They're like little perfect puzzles that just pop right together with a satisfying "snap". More of a bit of a Beatlesque sound sometimes. It's like Jason and Rachel have gone from each being 9-10s in their respective fields to being 20s. The difference is striking and also remarkable in seeing something that was really great before just excel farther than you'd expected possible.
With a 11-year-old drummer, of course, you're going to have detractors being lame. For example, when they left Seattle (when Rachel was still 9), a bunch of people wrote in to The Stranger talking about how horrible it was that they were forcing Rachel to play drums and making her go to Horrible Smoky Clubs and everything.
These people have obviously never actually seen a Trachtenburgs show. First off, Jason always asks people to extinguish their cigarettes (and people comply). And, more importantly, Rachel is playing because she wants to play. The very first show of theirs I saw, Rachel wasn't there. When I'd seen them later, I asked if Rachel was OK (if she'd been sick or anything), and it turned out that she just wanted to stay with a friend that morning and play. If they were using Rachel rather than letting her do something she enjoys, wouldn't Jason and Tina said "No! We have a gig! Now you get down to Tacoma and play those drums!"? But since Jason and Tina aren't mean and realize that this sort of thing should be fun, they let her stay over at her friend's house, while Jason and Tina did the show alone. Jason used his keyboard's drum patterns to fill in for the lack of live drums, and would use the Invisible Parrot to sing the backup bits Rachel usually got. (The invisible parrot was just Jason making a funny voice and miming having a parrot on his shoulder.)
My guess is that these people, of the sort who wrote in to The Stranger just don't understand one thing – children are Actual, Real People, and are often capable of making decisions. Not everything a child does is a result of having been forced into it. And that's something these people need to understand. I suppose, though, if they feel that they have to take something pure and good and decide to assign ulterior and sinister motives to it, rather than just a family getting together, having fun and playing great music, that's their prerogative. But I don't get why they'd want to. With all the bad things, shouldn't we be embracing the good, pure and beautiful?
I think so.