Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots – S/T

Despite being dubbed the “front sideman” in Denver’s rockabilly roadshow Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Jay Munly would have a hard road overcoming Slim’s powerful personality. Munly writes a number of songs for that band and performs with them, but perhaps it’s the desire to stretch his unique musical influences that prompt his solo performances, which often feature upwards of six or eight people on stage playing a host of instruments from strings and keys to lap steel and accordion.

Munly’s latest effort, with a backing band dubbed the Lee Lewis Harlots, is without a doubt one of the strongest albums to come from Denver’s confusing yet stimulating blend of musical styles that features the goth-country of 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna’s rockabilly blend, and Devotchka’s Eastern European-influenced rock. This is Munly catapulting his way to the front of the pack, and there is not a single disappointing song on this epic 15-track disc. There is, however, so much going on that playing it on repeat is highly recommended.

The Harlots provide a perfect backing of upbeat, country-, folk-, and gothic-influenced rock, from angelic choruses to strings and more. But the show is all about Munly himself. His voice is perfect no matter what range he sings in, and in fact on “Cassius Castrato the She-Male of the Mens Prison” he demonstrates that while going from a high-pitched falsetto to a low, almost growling tenor. His guitar playing is upbeat and tight. But really, you’re buying into the Munly experience on the profound storytelling that will simultaneously excite, repulse, and titillate the masses.

A read through the lyrics on this release read like old-time folk stories passed through the mind of a brilliant songwriter. Take the incest-ridden lyrics from “Big Black Bull Comes Like a Caesar,” which perfectly combines rich cello and striking acoustic guitar: “My parents up and passed when I was none than three. I forced myself on my brother, made him watch me swell.” Or consider “Cassius Castrato the She-male of the Men’s Prison,” whose theme is evident in the title: “Boys I got none of nothin’ left to trade, so I cut off my ear and went to the gate / The guards did not smile, in their buffalo voices said, ‘we need more’ / I severed my left hand I pulled all my teeth, I left on my right hand to wield my piece / I disconnected my testicles, gave ’em over to the prison guards, but, the guards said we need more.” He even throws in a reference to his buddy Slim Cessna, like the line “You’ll never be as slim as Slim” on “A Gentle Man’s Jihad.” Even Munly’s song titles are storytelling, such as the moniker for the haunting and then rollicking “Song Rebecca Calls, ‘That Birdcage Song,’ Which Never Was Though Now Kind of is Because of Her Influence…”

It’s hard to pick the best song here, but the wonderful “The Leavening of the Spit-Bread Girls” is probably the my favorite track, with gorgeous cello and amazing vocal treatment. It features Munly singing with angelic female singers backing up with “Yes we will believe, we will believe” and, at one point, a surprisingly effective scatting portion. The extremely catchy and upbeat “Of Silas Fauntleroy’s Willingness to Influence the Panel” is a perfect break near the end of the album. The moody atmosphere created on the up-tempo “My Second Salvation Army Choir” is brilliant, and “The Denver Boot Redux” is similarly beautiful, riding a perfect mix of acoustic guitar and strings, with moments of intensity in the choruses.

For those truly brave at heart, the album also contains a second disc, a DVD that has the entire album in surround sound, images to go with the songs, and even the lyrics to the songs with the artist reading them in his own voice.

There’s not enough space to rave about the brilliance of this release. One moment, I feel the album rocks fantastically, and the next I’m swayed by its brilliant beauty. I’m fascinated by Munly’s storytelling lyrics (and the dark places those stories must come from). The production is immaculate, and the sheer quantity of music nearly overpowering. There’s not a bad moment here, and that’s extremely rare. This is truly brilliant, and if Munly can’t be bestowed the genius tag quite yet, he’s submitted his application.