Various Artists – Memoir, Mechanical Music Hall: Street, Penny & Player Pianos

Thomas Bartlett

By Thomas Bartlett

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
A blast from the past — music boxes, penny pianos, and other Victorian-era gewgaws.

This treasure trove of music for Victorian-era automated instruments actually contains 37 individual pieces, most about a minute and a half in length, and grouped into 13 tracks around the repertoires of turn-of-the-century music hall stars like Albert Chevalier, Ellaline Terris and Lottie Collins. Part of the fun is in starting to identify the different instruments 'characteristics: Polyphon music boxes have sonorous, warmly resonant low notes, while Regina music boxes sound, mysteriously, like a bad electric piano sound on a synthesizer; street pianos are bombastic and metallic, while disc pianos sound nearly like a chorus of banjos. Best of all are the penny pianos, which sound like something out of Tom Waits 'musical universe, creakily out of tune and threatening to fall apart at any moment. A paradoxical effect of listening to this music is that while it's all played by machines, those machines are now so quaint and precious, so endearingly imprecise, that it still feels handmade, with all the romance and charm of an elaborately ticking, whirring old mechanical clock.