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Album Review: Derek Smalls’ ‘Smalls Change’

The 'Spinal Tap' alum's release might be the hokiest album of 2018, and also maybe the most honest.

Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls’ solo debut isn’t the first rock concept album devoted to the subject of getting old. (Leonard Cohen’s final album, “You Want It Darker,” probably counts, to register a comparison we shouldn’t stretch too thin.) “Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing),” though, might be the first long player devoted primarily to the physical indignities that come toward the end of the long game — dental, arthritic, follicular and erectile dysfunctions all included. It’s a heavy metal borscht belt album, full of “Take my gall bladder, please” humor updated for rock ’n’ roll’s own sunset years, with the added pleasure of the world’s screaming-est guitarists to go with the screaming gout.  

Speaking of impending death, Spinal Tap appears to have finally bought the sex farm. Some time after their last reunion tour in 2009, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest apparently decided 40 years was enough flogging for what began as a one-off TV sketch in 1979. It’s natural that Harry Shearer would be the one carrying the burden of mock-rock forward and asking, “How could I leave this behind?,” since he’s stayed in satirical songwriting practice, still writing  songs on a weekly basis for his public radio program, “Le Show.” In this album’s ludicrously majestic title track, Shearer/Smalls offers a simple enough explanation for soldiering on alone to the mediocre end: “Lukewarm water, it still has to flow,” he sings, echoing a memorable deadpan line from the ’84 movie. “Somewhere to be, and somewhere to go.”

Breakup ballads aside, the album mostly sticks to the practical problems of the age 70-plus rocker, 55 years on from everybody hoping they died before … this happened: “Breath getting short / Life getting long / You’re hanging on / By a thread and a thong,” Smalls sings in “Rock and Roll Transplant.” (Did Pink Floyd’s “Time” say it any better?) “Now, rocking out is just another chore” encapsulates what stadium-goers everywhere suspect Mick is thinking and hope he’s not… Mick Mars, that is, since we couldn’t possibly think of comparing Spinal Tap to the Stones.

“Hell Toupee,” possibly hair metal’s first male pattern baldness anthem, addresses Satan’s own pate (“His realm could still be hellish if he had a mop to flop / You’ll still rue the day you met him with some coverage on top”). In the album’s most boldly crude number, “Gummin’ the Gash,” a lack of dentures is presented as, well, no barrier to advanced sexual technique (“This beast don’t need no fangs”). The best track, “MRI” (“You don’t get high from the barium dye”), has Smalls and guest guitarist Dweezil Zappa adopting speed metal in service of the subject that is literally least appropriate for headbanging. 

On an hour-long album where there’s a new punch line every rhyme, some land and many don’t. Occasionally the title beats the tune; Shearer could have dropped the mic after coming up with “She Puts the Bitch in Obituary.” “Butt Call” doesn’t find any new laughs in the topic of accidental big-bottom dialing, although the chorus’s percussive combination of frantic drumming by Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins and an iPhone on vibration mode is inexplicably awesome. 

Big-name instrumental guests help the comedy go down easier, since the guttural voice Shearer adopted for Smalls back in the ’80s was never meant to fuel an entire album. If you have a soft spot for hard rock shredding but can’t appreciate its pompous contexts unironically, this is the album for you, with Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Steve Lukather present and taking their eruptive tasks very seriously. A more eclectic guitar hero, Richard Thompson, even pops up to do the metal solo we always suspected he could. Prog keyboard king Rick Wakeman duels with Satriani on a nine-minute pomp-rock finale, and Shearer spends some of that “Simpsons” cash on a few tracks’ worth of elaborate symphonic orchestration that’s as melodious as he isn’t. 

The biggest treat is a classic-era Steely Dan semi-reunion, with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Larry Carlton adding their signature licks to “Memo to Willie,” which reveals its crucial fetish via jazzy chord changes, horn charts and a sly guitar quotation from “Reelin’ in the Years” even before Donald Fagen stops by to sing the ED-defying refrain: “Willie, don’t lose that lumber.” (Steely Dan did take their name from a literary phallus, so maybe Fagen is repaying some kind of karmic debt, participating in this virility upkeep gag.)

For non-Tap cultists, a little of this Ozzy Dangerfield routine may go a long way. But as with the original movie, there’s a hint of poignancy underneath (OK, way underneath) a song like “When Men Did Rock,” which eulogizes a form of music slowly slipping off this mortal coil along with its practitioners. Age makes fools even of those of us who weren’t warming up puppet shows 35 years ago, so who are we to cast stones at sad senior rock gods like Smalls, who only wants his career to go to age 111? “Smalls Change” might be the hokiest album of 2018, and also maybe the most honest.

“Smalls Change”
Twanky/BMG Records
Producers: CJ Vanston and Harry Shearer
Guest musicians: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Gregg Bissonette, Larry Carlton, David Crosby, Donald Fagen, Taylor Hawkins, Jim Keltner, Danny (Kootch) Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, Michael League, Jane Lynch, Steve Lukather, Judith Owen, Snarky Puppy Horns, Joe Satriani, Paul Shaffer, Chad Smith, Richard Thompson, Steve Vai, Waddy Wachtel, Rick Wakeman, Phil X, Dweezil Zappa

Album Review: Derek Smalls' 'Smalls Change'

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