Les Daniels & Rick Lee,
Dr. Daniels & Mr. Lee
(self-produced, 1999)

I wouldn't normally review a self-produced CD, but this one is something special. Les Daniels is better known as a writer, having penned an excellent series of historical horror novels concerning the adventures of the deathless vampire, Don Sebastian. More recently, he has become the official historian of DC Comics, and has written several histories of DC and their characters, including the recent Superman coffee table book.

But Les also sings, plays banjo, and writes songs, a dozen of which appear on this album with Rick Lee providing backup vocals and guitar. The album is a combination of bluegrass, folk and country, with a heavy emphasis on sophisticated Tom Lehrer-style parodies.

Three of these tunes were written with comedian/actor Martin Mull. The first of the Mull-Daniels collaborations, "Cleveland," is a Stephen Fosterish paean for the joys of Ohio: "Oh me, oh me-oh-my-o/I miss the life I loved down in Ohio." "The Great Bellvue Murder Mystery" is another rural-rube-in-the-city-missing-his-home-place parody, and "Country Lass" switches between major and minor as the narrator searches for a tongue-in-cheek "good ole country lass."

The songs that Daniels has written himself are equally fun, if not even more so. "First Base" compares love to baseball:

Now I'm just a little farm team boy, and I'd like to fill your heart with joy,
But I'll have to get my uniform dyed blue,
The way I'm cryin' they'll have to call the game on account of rain,
'Cause I can't seem to get to first base with you.

"Cowboy Song" is a minor key ballad, with a jilted lover imagining what it would be like to be a fearless cowboy. It's droll and wistful, with a sweet, traditional-sounding melody. The dryly humorous tone continues with "Beggars Can't Be Choosers," in which the narrator has to be content with the ugly girl who's just bailed him out of prison, and "I Just Broke Jail" (does Daniels, like Hitchcock, have a prison phobia?), which tongue-twistingly tells of a moonshiner and his travails with the law. "Mr. Moonshine" looks at the illegal practice from the point of view of a woman who sings plaintively, "Lips that touch whiskey will never touch mine, Mr. Moonshine / Hands that make whisky will never get frisky with me." The gorgeous melody belies the ironic lyrics, and one could almost believe this to be a turn-of-the-last-century prohibition ballad.

Another more serious song is "Sentimental Value," in the same antique vein as "Mr. Moonshine." My favorite, however, is "The Coyote Kid," which begins with a rhythmic guitar line which leads into a far more complex chord progression than many of the other songs. The story the song tells is equally complex and haunting. "Gallows Hill" and "Nervous Breakdown" are two instrumentals, which effectively show off Daniels' frailing and three-finger techniques.

Daniels and Lee acquit themselves admirably throughout, both instrumentally and vocally, although there are a few rough spots where more takes might have helped. Still, there's a spontaneity and an authenticity to this album that is sorely lacking in many professionally produced CDs. Add to that the great songwriting you'll find here, and the only complaint is that the disc isn't longer.

Regular outlets won't carry this, so if you're interested, you might want to write Mr. Daniels at Box 814, Providence RI 02901 for ordering information. I think you'll find him as friendly and informative as the advice he gives on the back of the CD box: "KEEP THE SHINY SIDE DOWN."

[ by Chet Williamson ]