Trachtenburg Slide Show Players: The Complicated Life

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

Low-fi comedy seems to be the fashion of the day, thanks to Josie Long and her ilk forging a new genre of sweetly amateurish humour far from the madding Jongleurs crowd. Not that the style is new: Jason Trachtenburg has been following this track for nigh-on 20 obscure years, starting from the fringes of New York’s folk music scene.

With his wife Tina and daughter Rachel, the unique family are now established on the fringes of comedy, too, where their perfectly shambolic sensibilities and primitive production values fit in well. Whereas slick comics employ PowerPoint, their slide-projector technology is several generations behind.

If you’re not already aware, the family scour thrift shops, boot sales and flea markets for the discarded slide collections of anonymous strangers, which they then construct entirely imagined songs about. In their words, they are ‘the world’s only indie vaudeville conceptual-art rock-pop slideshow family band’. All very eccentric and delightful.

But in this, their third Soho Theatre run off the back of another Edinburgh season, there’s something missing. Jason’s flimsy banter is just that, stretching his innate charm to the absolute limit, while the only stand-out songs are the old ones.

Fans would not forgive them if they didn’t perform Look At Me, the track that best encapsulates all that they do, telling the invented story of two retired military nurses from Seattles. And their other great classic, the hilariously overblown mini-rock opera based on a 1977 McDonald’s corporate presentation – OPNAD Contribution Study Committee Report – gets a frustratingly truncated airing.

But the new tracks pale in comparison. Few have the convincing narrative of their predecessors; the slides seeming to be nothing but disjointed background images to their folk-pop ballads, rather than an integral part of the story. Bad diction and worse acoustics mean lyrics in some of the show’s earlier songs are lost, too.

The main thing missing from The Complicated Life, however, is interaction among the family. The interjections of drummer Rachel, now 13, usually provide a hilarious disjointed commentary, but here she doesn’t say a word that isn’t part of a backing lyric.

There is just one scene setting up the show which does use the family dynamic to good advantage. It’s a deliberately shoddy sitcom, performed in their kitchen complete will an ill-timed, unconvincing laughter track that they all joke loosely around with.

But that playfulness is missing for much of the ensuing hour, and without it what could be a charmingly higgledy-piggledy approach to their work too often strays into the maddeningly unfocussed.

The family have always untouched by slickness – just like their strangely discoloured slides are untouched by Photoshop – and both are generally all the more charming for it. But there really needs to be more than this for the show to really shine.

If you’ve never seen the Trachtenburgs before, you could still be won over by their quirkiness and the strange but compelling voyeurism of looking into both their unconventional life and the lost memories of the dead in their slides. And the songs are pretty damn good, too.

But if you’ve seen them before, you are likely to be disappointed at the lost chance to capitalise on all that make them unique. Instead, they seem to have taken a small step backwards.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
London, August 2007

Review date: 31 Aug 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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