You may know Harry Shearer as the voice of Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Principal Skinner, both C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers, Dr. Hibbert, Kent Brockman, Lenny, Scratchy, Rainier Wolfcastle, Otto the bus driver, Eddie the cop, Kang the alien, Jasper Beardly, and many, many others on “The Simpsons.” What you may not realize is that he was the original Eddie Haskell on the pilot of “Leave it to Beaver.”
Oh, and he plays Derek Smalls, bass player for the fictional-turned-real band Spinal Tap in a legendary mockumentary and subsequent music career.
That last one is most important for our purposes today because, 34 years after This Is Spinal Tap hit theaters, Shearer as Smalls has a solo album. Really. An actual solo album, not a fictional solo album like 1978’s nonexistent It’s a Smalls World.
Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) is a real album by a fictional member of a fictional band that actually released three albums and actually toured to support them. And it’s got contributions from many real superstars, including David Crosby, Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, actress Jane Lynch, Joe Satriani, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Richard Thompson, Steve Vai and members of Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers.
Got all that? Me neither. The good news is that it doesn’t matter whether you get it because it’s actually pretty good. It’s a solid throwback to 1970s hard rock and early heavy metal, and as you’d expect from a comic actor it’s absolutely hilarious.
Even if you don’t know anything about Shearer or Spinal Tap or any of the things I wrote above, it probably won’t affect your opinion of the album at all. There are some things in there for longtime Spinal Tap fans, like “Gimme Some (More) Money,” a sequel to “Gimme Some Money” from the movie’s soundtrack, but it stands alone as well.
Yes, the comedy is the best part of the album. Shearer the comedian is still as brilliant as ever. There are few people who could come up with the song title “She Puts the Bitch in Obituary,” for example, let alone follow it up with an entire song’s worth of lyrics. But I don’t want to minimize that the music is also very good. Replace the lyrics with something less overtly funny and you’d never know it wasn’t an actual comeback solo album by an aging rocker, with both the good and bad things that implies.
Like the title suggests, the album is about aging; “Memo to Willie,” for example, is a song about impotence. But it’s a song about impotence addressed to the singer’s penis. It’s everything you would hope based on that description. “MRI” is very literally about getting an MRI, including lines like “You don’t get high from the barium dye.”
There are also a diversity of styles reflecting the eras in which Spinal Tap are supposed to have existed; “MRI” is very much an early heavy metal song, “Gummin’ the Gash” (yes, really) sounds like early thrash. “When Men Did Rock” is as close to a prototypical prog rock song as you’ll ever hear, from the synths to the soaring chorus to the lyrics about an incoherent mishmash of fantasy themes.
One thing that will stand out to diehard Simpsons fans like myself, which I never noticed before this album, is that Derek Smalls sounds just like Otto. Without telling some friends what they were listening to I played them parts of songs and asked who it was by, and nearly all of them guessed Bart Simpson’s bus driver.
It’s a little uncanny, but it’s not bad by any stretch. If anything, it’s a bonus. Hearing Otto sing the lines “After the show, just a quick dash/ Don’t need teeth, nothing to gnash/ Gummin’ the gash, gummin’ the gash” was exactly what I needed in my life.
In the end that’s the best part about the album. In a rough, hostile, contentious era, when everyone seems furious with everyone else all the time, Smalls Change is an island in rough seas. It’s a purely enjoyable set of songs by a master of his craft. And though that craft isn’t technically music, that doesn’t diminish the experience in the slightest.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.