Slideshows -- once an interminable form of torture rivaling the gushing of parents over their children or dogs -- have been revitalized. Seattle's Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players wed slide images with music and appropriately derisive lyrics, creating one of the most enjoyable live shows in recent years.
Clad in matching outfits, the Trachtenburgs -- Jason on guitar and keyboard, 9-year-old Rachel on drums, and wife Tina manning the slide projector -- emanate a familial vibe that separates them from any other indie act. The linchpin is Rachel, whose pigtailed presence and little-girl backing vocals convey a childlike innocence that perfectly balances Jason's coyly acerbic wit.
"If it wasn't for her -- if it was just me doing songs to slides -- we would not be where we're at. That's pretty obvious," says the motor-mouthed frontman. "I think I might be able to eke out a career maybe, but then I'd be on Mountain Dew and pharmaceuticals, like Daniel Johnston. The fact is, this act is just an extension of our everyday reality. And I'm really happy she's in the band, because it's helped us get to the next level."
The band's quirky music and tone makes the comparison to Johnston -- or perhaps Jonathan Richman, if he were less the naïf and more sly -- an apt one. Jason's lyrical shtick plays on our strange photographic fascinations, skewering the narcissistic impulse to have our picture taken in exotic locales ("Look at Me") and snap endless shots of foreigners ("European Boys"), and the morbid histories of popular tourist traps (as first noted in the Sex Pistols' "Belsen Was a Gas").
But he doesn't stop with vacation photos. One of the centerpieces of the band's new album, Vintage Slide Collections From Seattle, Volume I, is the rock opera "What Will the Corporation Do?", which seizes upon a 1977 marketing report for McDonald's, sarcastically giving the company's quest to sell more burgers the weighty treatment it deserves, complete with soaring choir and lilting harmonies. Overall, the music has an understated charm, covering everything from vaudevillian bounce to breezy pop to arch, dramatic arrangements that lampoon the egocentricity of their targets.
"I've always thought it was important to write music with meaning," Jason confides. "The lyrics should have some sort of significance and not just be about mundane, fictitious relationships or your inner feelings. I don't care about some songwriter's inner feelings. I want to hear about the state of the world. This is our contribution, to say, 'This is what corporations have done to us, and now we're all, in a way, slaves to their interests.' I feel that's one of our underlying messages."
It's something that Jason was doing long before he conceived the idea for the Slideshow Players. He toiled as a struggling singer for 15 years, without making much progress, until he inadvertently hit upon the concept.
"One day, Tina came home with some slides and a projector she had bought at a yard sale, and I wrote the song 'Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959' as kind of an exercise," Jason explains. "I didn't think much of it, but when I played it live, the audience's response was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and I realized, 'We're on to something here.'"
Jason says he knew that Rachel should be in the band, "because she's with us constantly. She could be sitting bored in the audience, doing coloring books, or take an active part in this band and [help it] sound better sonically. So it seemed like an obvious choice."
He claims that the communication he has with Rachel is better than with any other musician he's worked with and that "her musical intuition is better than most. I trust her -- she's so solid back there, so I really couldn't be in any other band or be with any other drummer than her."
Of course, when TFSP recorded its first album in 2001 (now re-released on Bar/None Records), Jason felt a need for a more experienced stickman than Rachel, who'd been playing for only six months. He recruited Mike Musberger (the Fastbacks, the Posies), but not without protest.
"I felt we had to make the best record ever made, because in Seattle, everyone was always trying to second-guess -- like is the music going to stand on its own? How's it going to work without the slides?" Jason admits. "Rachel, when I told her she wasn't going to be on the record -- except for a little bit of vocal work -- she was pissed. She was seriously upset and didn't talk to me for a week. I didn't think it was a very big deal, but it really was an insult to her. In retrospect, I had to do it, though."
All this is in the past now. Lately, the band's been featured everywhere from The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly to dozens of weekly and daily papers. They're humming along on all cylinders, having spent most of the summer touring, along with their dog, Emma.
"That's especially great for me, because I'm the only one who gets homesick. Jason and Rachel really don't. So for me, it's 'Oh, I got my dog,'" says Tina. "[Rachel] has kept very grounded through this, like it's nothing, really. It's very bizarre, but Rachel really thinks nothing of it, which is cool."
Indeed, the shy little drummer offers only that she likes "swimming at the hotels, staying up late, and playing a show every night." A moment later, she adds, "It was fun to go on Conan O'Brien." Being out of school much of the year and not seeing her friends for more than a few weeks here and there, when the family commutes back to Seattle from the road, seems to her like some great, extended summer vacation. Here's wondering if, along this whirlwind road to success, they're taking pictures.
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