Review: The Tragic Treasury: Songs From A Series of Unfortunate Events - The Gothic Archies (Stephin Merritt)

TragicTreasury.jpgAs a parent of five- and one-year-old kids, I'm not quite in the Lemony Snicket core demographic -- my kids are too young to really be reading the books, and I'm way too busy to add another kids' book series to my plate. (I'm sorry, Harry Potter got there first.)

I am considerably closer, however, to the Stephin Merritt demographic and it's he, in the guise of his "Gothic rock-bubblegum pop" band The Gothic Archies, who has composed a song to accompany the audiobooks for each of the Lemony Snicket A Series of Unfortunate Events books. With the release of the thirteenth and final book in the series The End on, appropriately enough, this Friday the 13th, Nonesuch Records is releasing The Tragic Treasury: Songs From A Series of Unfortunate Events tomorrow, collecting tracks from all thirteen audiobooks for the first time on one disc. (How did this partnership occur? Well, Snicket's alter ego, author Daniel Handler, and Merritt go way back -- Handler played accordion on Merritt's breakthrough with the Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs.)

As you might expect given the source material, this is not exactly "Up With People." More like "Down With People." The opening track, from the first book in the series, has a pleasant enough melody, but with lyrics such as "You might be thinking what a romp this is / But wait 'til you meet his accomplices" and a chorus that goes "Scream and run away / run / run run run run run run run / or die / die die die die die die die," there's a lyrical darkness that you don't really get on a lot of kids' albums. OK, on virtually no kids' albums.

But having read the first book in the series to prepare for this review, I can assure you that the song totally matches the tone of the book with witty and intricate lyrics that are the equal of Snicket's words. Musically, Merritt singing style recalls one of the pioneers of Goth music, the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division. And the songs themselves, which peppy ("Freakshow") or moodily atmospheric ("Crows"), serve the lyrics, which typically don't tell stories (a la the intricate narratives of the Decemberists) as much as they serve as musical illustrations for the book. They're complementary, in the best way. It's almost a shock, then, to hear the "bonus tracks," the sunny (or at least only partly cloudy) "Walking My Gargoyle" and the almost snappy "We Are the Gothic Archies." The tone still matches that of the books, and "Gargoyle" is an especially fun track, but they do feel a little out of place.

The recommended reading age for the books seems to be about 9 though 12, so I'm guessing that kids 8 and up will enjoy the songs the most. You can hear three excellent tracks at Nonesuch's site for the album or the band's Myspace page.

I don't think families will want to listen to The Tragic Treasury on a regular basis if they have no familiarity with Lemony Snicket or Stephin Merritt. These are excellent songs, but they're for a certain time and place, and you may not be at that time and place yet with your family. If, however, you've got Stephin Merritt or Lemony Snicket fans in your household (be it you or a younger member), this CD is an excellent and darkly humorous romp through the world of Lemony Snicket and is highly recommended for you. (And it might even get you turned on to another great series in kids' literature. After all, I only need to get through one more Harry Potter book, and then I'll be looking for something else...)