- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer and Jefferson Pitcher

Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies

Standard Recording Co.

In what’s sure to spark some kind of microtrend, three songwriters - Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer and Jefferson Pitcher teamed up with a diverse panoply of musicians to produce this three-CD set, with a song devoted to each of the 43 American presidencies. (Yes, Grover Cleveland, who served two nonconsecutive terms, gets two tracks.) This impressive and well-timed effort is accompanied by a 50-page illustrated pamphlet and will be supplemented with a new song to be released online just after the November elections.

The songwriting is workmanlike but rarely memorable. There is a vague nod in the direction of historical musicology, with some of the frontier-era songs featuring old-time riffs and instruments. In the same vein, the song chronicling the Ford administration rings out with a velour-smooth funk intro combining conga, synth and guitar. On the other hand, the more pleasing tunes are gleefully out of step chronologically - for example, the alt-rock James Monroe song, “The Last Cocked Hat” with vocals by Marla Hansen.

“Schoolhouse Rock” this isn’t. The songs aren’t even necessarily about their ostensible subjects. William McKinley’s track takes the perspective of his assassin, Leon Czolgosz. Theodore Roosevelt is honored with a bizarre riff that references John Kerry and George Soros. (Yes, “Of Great and Mortal Men” bends to the left.)

Lyrics on “Of Great and Mortal Men” range from hagiography to hellfire. “Benevolence,” the song about Andrew Jackson, will resonate with anyone who can’t look at a $20 bill without going into a froth about the excesses of the First Seminole War. It’s a spare, chilling, organ-driven song with a banjo line that trembles like an accusing finger as Mr. Kiefer sings, “Children, take my hand, and I will kill to save every one of you.”

Abraham Lincoln is remembered with his own words in the sweet, trembling “Malice, Charity, and the Oath of God,” which contains snippets of the Gettysburg Address as well as the 16th president’s first and second inaugurals.

Yet by and large, the three songwriters take liberties with the presidential throat.

Both the first and the current occupants are remembered with imagined monologues. “Washington Dreams of the Hippopotamus” pictures George Washington on his deathbed talking to his wife, Martha, about the “presidential teeth that told all my lies.” It opens with a Revolutionary-era fife-and-drum march, which is replaced by a simple, downcast guitar line, with the marching beat reprised cleverly in the chorus. George W. Bush is represented with a dirgy lullaby that explodes with anthemic power. The lyrics, written and sung by all three songwriters, portray Mr. Bush as doltish, wistful and clearly out of his depth.

I much preferred the songs about the historical accidencies and dark horses than those about the more popular chief executives. Rather than tread in broad and easy generalities, they instead draw from more interesting and obscure historical currents.

The track about Millard Fillmore (“The Proof Is in the Pudding”) obliquely references the Fugitive Slave Act. The title Warren G. Harding song (“An Army of Pompous Phrases”) refers to a quotation from U.S. senator and treasury secretary William Gibbs McAdoo that characterizes Mr. Harding’s style of oratory. My favorite track, “Rough and Ready,” covers the brief and uneventful presidency of Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, as he attempted the doomed gymnastics of straddling both sides of the slavery question. It opens with a plush, warm violin line, with mandolin and banjo counterpoint; it’s a song I can imagine listening to even after the novelty of the album wears off.

Like the institution of the presidency itself, “Of Great and Mortal Men” is a hit-or-miss affair. Though it never rises to the level of greatness embodied by, say, Abraham Lincoln, at least it doesn’t sink to the depths of James Buchanan.



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