THE BURNING HELL with TIMBER TIMBRE, WEIRD WEATHER, ENTIRE CITIES and the PEOPLE OF CANADA AT THE STUDIO (235 Carlaw, #202), Friday (January 18), 9 pm. $10. www.weewerk.com. Rating: NNNNN
Glockenspiel may be the new cowbell, but Burning Hell main man Mathias Kom is determined to make 2008 the year of the ukulele.
Ridiculous? Preposterous? That’s what I said before hearing Stephin Merritt plinka-plinking on his mini-axe while singing a jingle for a Volvo commercial. So now that some of the groundwork has been laid by Merritt and other ukulele hipsters like Guelph's Barmitzvah Brothers and the People of Canada, the Burning Hell’s just-released Happy Birthday (weewerk) disc is ready to take advantage of the instrument’s covert creep back into the mainstream.
Not that Korn is trying to make some grand gesture by soloing himself silly on the album. On the contrary, he’s careful not to over-indulge in the sort of fun strumming that conjures troubling memories of Tiny Tim. Instead, he uses the instrument to subtlely showcase its unique character and versatility in support of his striking baritone.
“I think the way the Happy Birthday album sounds is in some sense due to the ukulele,” explains Korn from his Peterborough home. “That isn’t because I played so much ukulele all over it – I didn’t – but I wrote a lot of the songs on it, and the ukulele automatically gives them a happier veneer.”
Admittedly, the red-headed stepchild of the guitar family comes with a load of novelty baggage, and Korn isn’t going to undo the decades of damage done to the compact chordophone's credibility with one 13-track CD, however exquisitely produced and tastefully mixed by Andy Magoffin. However, it may cause some people to reconsider their opinion of the much-maligned four-stringed device originally developed in Hawaii during the 1880s.
“People always trash Tiny Tim, especially ukulele players, because right up until he died he couldn’t play the instrument very well. But an album called Girl (Rounder) that he did with Brave Combo in 1996 is amazing. The covers of the Beatles’ Girl and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven are, like, wow! His voice on those songs is incredible.
“Some ukulele snobs feel that people like Tiny Tim and George Formby reduced the instrument to a novelty device and should be derrided for it, but I totally disagree.”
Like so many former guitar pickers who’ve succumbed to the ukulele’s diminutive charms, Korn sometimes wonders whether he chose the instrument or it chose him.
“I started out playing the guitar, but the ukulele left my six-string in the dust. It’s just far superior in so many ways. Besides the price and portability advantages, it’s easier to learn to play, and I’ve found it to be a much better songwriting instrument. It’s such a fun thing to play, you end up experimenting on it for longer periods of time.”
Korn also just spent six months in Israel on an innovative new project using ukuleles to help defuse Middle East tensions. Seriously.
“I got involved in this grassroots organization in Tel Aviv called Ukuleles for Peace that gets Jewish and Arab children together once a week to practise the ukulele and then perform in a large ukulele youth orchestra. In November, I went over there to help them make a Ukuleles For Peace album.
“I’ll be going back to Israel this summer, and hopefully we’ll be able to raise enough funds to enable the orchestra to perform a few dates in Canada. It’s really a wonderful program I’m thrilled to be part of.”
Burning Hell mainman Mathias Kom discusses his own personal ukuleles.
...and the instruments he dreams about
The ukulele has tastemaking hipsters dead set on making the corny instrument cool again. Here’s who’s behind the comeback.
Magnetic Fields Stephin Merritt didn’t just use his ukulele in that catchy Volvo commercial. He’s also penned tributes like Ukulele Me and Little Ukulele and plays ukulele exclusively on tour.
Krista L.L. Muir Turned on to the uke while touring as Lederhosen Lucil, Krista Muir’s fascination with the instrument led her to drop the kooky cabaret routine and alter her songwriting approach.
Barmitzvah Brothers The band’s Jenny Mitchell deftly demonstrates the instrument’s heartbreakingly melancholy side on Let’s Express Our Motives.
KT Tunstall Don’t be fooled by the glammy shot of her rocking the Gibson Firebird on the Drastic Fantastic sleeve. The Scottish singer/songwriter is really all about the four-string; check the credits.
Eddie Vedder Believe it or don’t, the Pearl Jam dude is rumoured to have secretly cut an entire album of ukulele music. Grunge folk anyone?