THE ALBUM -- NRBQ's "Tiddlywinks," Rounder 3048. THE SHOW -- Friday at 9 at Maryland University's Grand Ballroom.
"Tiddlywinks." You've played the game, now hear the album by the New Rhythm'n'Blues Quartet, more economically known as NRBQ. Their latest release scatters little baubles of blues, jazz, rock and shlock that never quite leap into any particular tiddlypot.
What makes this group fresh is that it can take a creaky standard like "Music Goes Round and Around" and wedge it between "Me and Boys," a Bruced-up ditty that digs at male cronyism, and "Beverly," a smarmy ballad that whips through more time changes than a cross-country air shuttle. All this is done with a catchy ingenuity that turns out to be the only unifying trait these songs possess.
Presumably so they can keep the "Q" intact, the band lists its two extra members (Donn Adams on trombone and Keith Spring on tenor sax) as the Whole Wheat Horns, and while the contribution they make to the overall sound is interesting, it's done with a studied avoidance of technical dexterity. Adams doesn't flex any musical muscle with his short and rather sloppy solo on "Music Goes," which should be a perfect showcase for slide trombone.
Keyboardist Terry Adams and bassist Joey Spampinato both possess boyish, clear voices, the perfect vehicles for many of their tongue-in-cheek, adolescent topics. So many of the lyrics here are inane and unthreatening that it's a sweet surprise to encounter a tune like "Roll Call," which tentatively dresses a schoolteacher in the Grim Reaper's cloak, then cops out with a nutshell, quasi-happy ending: Everyone got married And closed all the doors Acting just like grownups Playing rich and poor
Such surprises are hard-won. NRBQ seems more comfortable with a chorus consisting of "I can take almost anything / But I can't last a day without you" than with one that warns, "You can't hide behind your makeup/You'll have to let your perfections show." Most of the ideas are pretty threadbare by the time NRBQ gets to them, as with this verse from "Definition of Love": I ain't no expert But this much I know That when you give it away You wind up having more
But given the vitality and humor of these 12 tunes, an occasional lapse in lyrical imagaination doesn't do any real harm, especially when you consider that the point of all this eclecticism is not the substance, but the style. After all, NRBQ has been known to break into the theme song from "I Love Lucy" in the middle of a concert; it's a safe guess that they'd just as soon lampoon themselves as anybody else.
Which leads us to the only really bothersome thing about NRBQ: The same qualities that make the group funny also leave the listener a bit flat. Just when they reach a point where music or lyrics -- or both -- bypass mere craft for artistry, they sabotage themselves.
The best example of this is found on "Hobbies." An instrumental, the song explores some of the most untrodden tonal terrian to be found this side of jazz. The only vocal work is a finely layered "ah" harmony, which keeps the thing from getting confusing. But just when the tune reaches a denouement, the "ahs" degenerate into moaning and groaning, as if the band wishes to deny that, for them, music is anything but what the title suggests.
It's a hilarious ending, both for the song and the album, but one ends up wishing that just once this band would take the "Kick Me" sticker off its rear and let the real talent show through.
Still, they seem to relish their jack-of-all-trades status, and "Tiddlywinks" weighs in as the group's most enjoyable record since "NRBQ at Yankee Stadium." It seems to be little more than a game for them, but it's a pleasant game, and one that any number can play.