The Designer’s Drugs: Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection

Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection

Medium: Multiple

Stimulus: Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection

Anno: 2010

The problem with heroes is that after a while – and especially once they’re dead – they don’t get to be anything other than heroes.  Alongside Lenny Bruce, whose myth has him censored to death, Bill Hicks has become one character in the comedian’s world to be saddled with this uncomfortable status.  Yet perhaps more than Bruce himself, Hicks has been elevated to a nigh-messianic plateau, his flaws erased, his comedy bleached into the colors of philosophy.  As a person who often railed against groupthink and blind praise, I don’t think Hicks would accept the crown he’s been bestowed.

The great service provided by Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, the new box set retrospective of the man’s life and work, is that it goes beyond the philosopher mystique.  The two discs of stand-up recordings feature his famed rants on drugs, sex, marketing, and the many ways that society is designed to keep its citizens stupid and obedient.  Within this extensive compilation, the audio is the most familiar.  It’s a natural starting point for those new to Bill’s work, though old fans may have heard most of these pieces before.

There is a swerve in the audio end, however.  Enclosed in the collection is a download card which allows the audience to obtain an album of recorded music from Bill’s website.  As opposed to the faint sounds of acoustic guitar that drifted through his stand-up recordings, this work, titled Lo-Fi Troubadour, is a full album of quietly passionate acoustic ballads.  What’s best about this facet of the compilation is that Troubadour was clearly recorded without an agenda, that it was simply Bill documenting another of his passions.  That said, he’d be a hit at any open mic.  “The Road Can Be Hard” is a beautiful breakup song, whereas “Waiting to Meet You,” despite its surface cheer, is a rather murderous tune.

The Young Outlaw.

The best part of The Essential Collection is in fact the video section.  While most such audio/video sets tend to treat the visual as secondary, this collection rewards those who want to go deeper into Bill’s work.  The most fun thing to be found in this anthology is Ninja Bachelor Party, a silly martial arts B-movie made by Bill and a few friends.  Yet the most illuminating artifacts are the many bootleg videos of Bill performing stand-up over the years.  It’s startling to see a young Bill Hicks, just out of high school, clean cut and wearing a tie.  His comedy is largely apolitical, mostly joking about the craziness of his family.  Compared to his later work, it’s very nonthreatening, and yet it’s also incredibly funny.

And here’s the point that the video section drives home: Bill Hicks was a brilliant comedian long before he ever became a social critic.  With all due respect to what he had to say, The Essential Collection rightly maintains that Bill could have said anything and brought the house down.  True to its title, this collection is essential in breaking up the myth of Bill Hicks to show more of the admirable person beyond.

Photo courtesy of the Hicks family.

The Designer’s Drugs: Vienna Teng and Alex Wong – The Moment Always Vanishing

The Moment Always Vanishing

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Vienna Teng and Alex Wong – The Moment Always Vanishing

Anno: 2010

One of the things I like least about live albums is the amount of talking (often preplanned) that often obstructs the music.  Unless the band is Kiss and the speaker is Paul Stanley – whose stage banter is so over the top that bootleggers have constructed entire albums devoted to it – listeners are probably going to hit fast forward and resent the artist.  Anticipating this, Vienna Teng and Alex Wong made a smart decision and placed their many such (seemingly unplanned) conversations on separate tracks, allowing listeners to get right to the action.  And in one of their speaking tracks, the group tries to wail like Paul Stanley, so points there as well.

Accompanied by a cellist in certain tracks, pianist Vienna Teng and multi-instrumentalist Alex Wong play a set of gorgeous melancholy.  The sound quality on these tracks is so great that, were it not for the applause and those bits of conversation, The Moment Always Vanishing could almost pass for a studio album.  Songs like “Antebellum” and “Blue Caravan” are every bit as wrenching as they are in their original forms, while a few songs break with Teng’s established formula and go further.  Showing the range of the performance, “The Last Snowfall” becomes a pristine work of heavy loops and production tricks, whereas “Grandmother Song” turns into a charging blast of bluegrass which gets the audience howling.  The presence of Radiohead’s “Idioteque” at album’s end is a well done bonus.

More live albums should be like this.  The combination of skill and personality shown on The Moment Always Vanishing sets it in a class far above most bands’ stale victory laps.  With Vienna Teng stepping away from music for the time being, this serves as a magnificent stopping point.

The Vienna Teng Trio will play Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival on Sunday, September 5th.  To read my interview with Vienna Teng and Alex Wong, go here.