I used to watch reruns of M*A*S*H with my grandfather in the 1980s, when I was just a kid. One of the things that stuck with me, beyond Jamie Farr rocking drag as Corporal Klinger and the ever-present, bespectacled Radar O’Reilly, was the theme song. You’re probably humming it in your head right now, the wordless twenty seconds or so melodramatically playing over a montage of Korean War hospital unit activity. It’s not something a kid would gravitate toward normally, I would think, unless hunkered down with a parent or grandparent (like I was). Then of course the comedy started, and we were all good. That Hawkeye Pierce was such a card!
As I got older, I found out that the guy who directed Popeye had also directed a film called M*A*S*H in 1970 that the show was based off of. Who knew? And who knew I wouldn’t even care about Robert Altman until I was old enough to watch Gosford Park, which came out the year I graduated from college. Hey, everybody gets around to the classics at some point, but I still felt late to M*A*S*H … whenever it was that I saw it. The other surprise? The TV show theme song I was so familiar with had lyrics.
Yeah, “Suicide Is Painless” is the first track that Frank Lenz covers on the three-song EP Hot Painless City, all three of which have appeared in films, and Lenz treats it as a sacred artifact, not veering from the original, playing it from the heart, and knocking it out of the park. The last time I checked in with Lenz was on 2013’s stupendous Water Tiger (has it been that long since I’ve dug into some primo Lenz?), so the decidedly non-road-movie-soundtrack vibe of this here EP threw me for a smidge of a loop. But that’s what makes it fun, doesn’t it? It allows you to dabble in some nostalgia, not only from when you were a kid hanging out at your grandparents’ place on a Saturday but also from when discovering film and art and music was at the peak of excitement, before you sauntered off into your adult life. And now, the utter gallows humor of a sentiment like “Suicide Is Painless” is almost too appropriate for our times. Frank’s hit a trifecta for me here with this one.
There was no such historical memory triggered by “Hot Child in the City,” a power pop tune by a Canadian artist I’d not been privy to named Nick Gilder. But after one or two listens, I felt like Frank Lenz’s version of the tune would be with me absolutely forever. Talk about an earworm – think Cheap Trick meets Sloan (because you have to name-drop a real Canadian power pop act in comparison) with an unbelievably killer chorus, and you’ve got “Hot Child in the City.” I’m honestly pretty sure it’s never going to leave my mind, that there will be times in my life when one or two of the words will be said by strangers on the street and I will triumphantly raise my fist to the sky and belt the chorus into a nonexistent microphone before dropping into some wicked air guitar. I’m honestly pretty sure I’ll be hauled off to an asylum if that ever happens. Oh, and there was some 1980s exploitation flick also called Hot Child in the City, which used Gilder’s tune as its theme song. I’m gonna go scrub my search history now.
And what ice-cold, stone-hearted villain does not recognize Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” from one of the most touching scenes in all of Love, Actually, the one where Emma Thompson stands betrayed in her bedroom before her kids’ Christmas pageant, smoothing the bedspread in dignified shame as an incredible array of emotion crosses her face as she tries to hold it together? Not Frank Lenz, that’s … not who. Not sure how that double negative’s coming across. Anyway, in the same vein as “Suicide Is Painless,” Lenz cradles “Both Sides Now” and gently sends it across the open air, conjuring perfect memories and brighter days and nights. And I’m not even a Joni Mitchell fan, in the end! Is that blasphemous? Please tell me, I’m really not sure.
Hot Painless City is ten minutes of sheer bliss, whether it’s bringing back memories or making new ones. On the inimitable Velvet Blue Music!