Friday, October 13, 2017

Ghoul House Rock: Monster University Pajama Party


Once upon a time, Halloween's greatest anthems had an unforgiving, inflexible life cycle. Each year around Oct. 1, the likes of "Monster Mash" and "Purple People Eater" would begin trickling to local radio stations, allowed to run free for a few weeks before being promptly stuffed back into their cages by program managers on Nov. 1. That's the cultural tradition, anyhow.

But something interesting started happening during the 1970s. During one of the scheduled, unsupervised releases, music that was thought to be nothing more than a seasonal holiday began breeding with rock and roll. Thanks to acts such as Alice CooperRamones, The Damned, Blue Oyster Cult, Misfits and The Cramps, "horror rock" began to expand its tentacles outward from October, eventually mutating once-seasonal music into a perennial orgy of the damned. Yay!

Case in point: The Von Hoffman Orchestra's 2010 release, "Monster University Pajama Party." While mainstream acts have created their own distinct monster mashes, the Von Hoffman Orchestra crafted a near-flawless love letter to the kinds of Halloween novelty songs of the 1960s. The "orchestra" is actually the work of artist/writer/musician Mike Hoffman, who also created the cover art. If you visit his website you'll see the guy is supertalented.

There are a number of releases in his "Monster University" series, but "Pajama Party" is easily my favorite. From the slinky seriousness of "Island of Dr. Moreau," to the adorable creepiness of "Icky Feelings," the album isn't so much a pastiche of '60s Halloween  novelties as it is a distillation of them. The album has such an irreverent sweetness to it that it could also double as a children's album, though those children would have to be especially smart to understand its many references.

Speaking of references, "Pajama Party" has not one, but two tracks dedicated to DARK SHADOWS. The first is the chipper "The Ballad of Barnabas Collins," which deals with the problematic nature of our vampire anti-hero and his troubled relationships with Willie Loomis and Julia Hoffman. The second, "Dark Shadows," takes a broader view of the series and reaches the optimistic conclusion that we'll all be watching it "until the sun explodes." Both tunes take jabs at the show's inconsistencies, but it's done with love.

Also among my favorite songs on the album is its closing track, "Alma Mater." This is the literal anthem of Monster University, performed with Hoffman's terrific baritone as he encourages all the young monsters marching into "science, commerce and law" to do their best in life ... even if that "best" might result in a lot of terror for everybody else. The song actually makes me nostalgic for my own college years, which were comparatively boring and monster free.

Even though there's a rich tradition of Halloween-related parodies, those represent the only duds on "Pajama Party." Featured on the album is a somber parody of "California Dreaming," which somehow manages to be even more maudlin that the version by the Mamas and the Papas. It pauses once more to cover Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo," re-titled here as "Halloween Hootchie Koo." I tend to skip these tracks when listening to the album, but the rest of the songs are so good that it doesn't really matter.

"Monster U, we love you."

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