The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina – Little King and the Salamander
by John McCall
Having heard great things about The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina’s previous release Act 3, I expected great things from their newest collection Little King and the Salamander. I am not disappointed. The potential for disappointment is real – Little King and the Salamander isn’t a natural follow-up, in the sense it highlights the next step in the band’s creative evolution, but is a collection of demos and alternate takes instead. Such albums can often strike listeners as second tier leftovers rather than individual efforts with their own strong heartbeat, but it isn’t the case with Little King and the Salamander. Instead, the fourteen songs on this release reveal the full breadth of songwriter Ryan Shivdasani’s creative vision and the band’s overall instrumental prowess.
“Hey Everybody” gets things off to a rollicking start, exuberance and swing galore, with a palpable light funk influence from its guitar work. It’s an instrumental except for a single line near the song’s beginning but the loose limbed melodicism permeating the song’s structure keeps you attentive throughout. The album’s title song is representative of a significant aspect of the band’s character – Shivdasani’s muse is a restless one and he shows a pronounced interest in challenging, jazz influenced pieces with a decidedly skewed edge. “The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina” shows off, as well, Shivdasani’s talented hand with a lyric. He exhibits the same instincts in this area that define his musical inclinations – even at his wordiest, there’s no self indulgence coming through and he communicates clearly with his audience. The stylish instrumentation powering this cut has a lean economy reflecting the certainty of Shivdasani’s songwriting goals. He knows what he wants and produces it every time.
“Particle Craze” is included on the band’s album Act 3, but the differences aren’t considerable. There’s a cleaner, more direct approach employed here, reflective of its demo status, but it’s clear Shivdasani entered the recording studio with a firm grasp on what he wanted from this track. “She’ll Do Anything” is one of the more melancholy examples of a Merrymaker’s Orchestrina ballad – it has a pensive, thoughtful mood pervading the song and the lyrical content is among the best you’ll hear on the release thanks, in no small part, to Shivdasani’s considered vocal. The singer/songwriter bonafides of “I’ll Be (Kisses at Your Door)” are unquestionable, but Shivdasani spikes the track with an uncertain, unsettled air hinting at a deeper darkness in the track. It has a creepy overtone the band plays with just the right amount of suggestiveness.
“Slip Away” is another track appearing on the Act 3 album and, like the earlier “Particle Craze”, doesn’t differ enormously from the album version and emphasizes, once again, the completeness of Shivdasani’s vision. “Fade Into the Night”, the second to last number included on Little King and the Salamander, is another track in a very moody vein, but never overdone. There’s definitely some theatricality in Shivdasani’s singing, but he modulates it nicely and helps round off the song’s emotional tone. The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina have released a compelling collection with Little King and the Salamander that may be demos and alternate versions, but nonetheless stands as its own work and proves their “leftovers” are as good as most band’s top shelf material.