Concept albums are a tricky thing to pull off. Rock operas are even harder. With the arrogance and chutzpah of youth, Long Island’s The Lemon Twigs have defied the odds and created a stone-cold masterpiece. The fact that the extraordinarily accomplished Go to School is only The Lemon Twigs’ second album simply boggles the mind. It has been entirely written, arranged, performed and produced by brothers Michael and Brian D’Addario in their home studio in Hicksville, New York – yes, there really is such a place – they are just 18 and 20 years old, respectively. You’re going to be hearing about these two preternaturally gifted musicians for many years to come.
Go to School is a musical bildungsroman about a chimp that is adopted and raised by human parents. Given the name Shane, the chimp is completely unaware of his simian past. Home schooled at first, Shane begs to be sent to a normal high school and that’s where his problems begin, though it is his sexual awakening later that triggers his biggest crisis. The album’s 15 songs paint a very clear narrative – unlike The Who’s Tommy, which I’ve always felt would benefit from some expository dialogue between a few of its tracks.
It helps that the story the D’Addarios have chosen to tell on Go to School is really quite simple and linear. “Never in My Arms, Always in My Heart” sets the plot in motion with some heartbreaking news for would-be parents, Carol and Bill, whose characters are voiced on two of the songs by Susan Hall, the D’Addarios’ mother, and legendary musician Todd Rundgren. The next few songs, “The Student Becomes the Teacher”, “Rock Dreams” and “The Lesson”, trace Shane’s initiation into high school. “Small Victories”, “Wonderin’ Ways”, “The Bully” and “Lonely” deal with the usual teenage yearnings and conflicts as Shane the chimp navigates adolescence. But when Shane loses his virginity, on “Queen of My School”, it leads to a loss of innocence and sets off a fatal chain of events. The story concludes with his banishment from human society and his final transfiguration.
The real story of the album, however, is its incredible music. It is my belief that The Lemon Twigs are blessed with two of the finest songwriters working today – both Brian and Michael D’Addario have a knack for clever, revealing lyrics, but it’s their gift for melody that is most impressive. Their songwriting appears to have sprung fully formed from a bygone era, like a kind of musical Wollemi pine, bearing the DNA of legends such as Brian Wilson, Lennon and McCartney and Ray Davies in their prime. The D’Addarios’ unusual chord arrangements and interesting melodies sound effortless, far from the pentatonic monotony of most of their contemporaries.
Some credit must also be given to their parents, who nurtured their talent in the same way exotic flowers are raised in a hothouse nursery. The family was a very musical household and during early childhood the brothers listened almost exclusively to The Beatles and The Beach Boys. As they grew older their tastes grew broader, ranging over all points of the musical compass, from Nirvana to Kanye West, and Stephen Sondheim to Alex Chilton. Nevertheless, their grounding in the classics of ’60s and ’70s rock has left an indelible mark on their musical sensibilities.
Their father, Ronnie, a career musician who taught his sons to play instruments from an early age, never forced the issue, simply encouraging them when they showed interest. For the two boys, making music became a passion and they soon became formidable players on a number of instruments, something clearly evident on both of The Lemon Twigs’ albums.
Their mother also played a crucial role in their artistic development. Susan cut her teeth in musical theatre and she passed on her love of the stage to both her sons and, in particular, her love of stage musicals. In 2006, when Brian was eight years old, he played Gavroche in Les Misérables on Broadway, performing in the show for the entirety of its two-year run. Then, after a four-day break, he originated the role of Flounder in Disney’s Broadway adaptation of The Little Mermaid, staying with that show for its full 21-month engagement. Around the same time, younger brother Michael performed in two very high-profile plays on Broadway, beginning with The Coast of Utopia, Part 2: Shipwreck when he was six, and then a revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, featuring John Lithgow, Katie Holmes and Dianne Wiest, the following year.
The story of precocious childhood performers who fail to impress as adults is as old as show business itself and this backstory would have very little significance if Michael and Brian weren’t so prodigiously talented. I see the imprint of all these formative artistic experiences in their songs on Go to School, giving it a depth and richness that belies the youth of its creators.
The Lemon Twigs’ first album, titled Do Hollywood, was released two years ago but was in fact written two years earlier. Brian and Michael literally split the songwriting, with each taking it in turns singing their respective songs, one after the other on the album. On Go to School they also contribute pretty much equally in terms of songwriting and lead vocals, though those roles are starting to blur, with each contributing ideas to the other’s songs. On “Born Wrong / Heart Song”, Michael sings lead vocals on one of Brian’s songs for the first time.
Still, there are differences. The acerbic Michael is the Lennon of the duo and, by and large, his songs are a little more rock’n’roll and direct than those of his older brother. Brian’s melodies are often sweeter and, perhaps, more elaborate than Michael’s, with a pronounced musical theatre streak. More often than not, though, their styles overlap: Brian’s songs are steeped in rock while Michael’s are also theatrical. It’s simply a matter of degree and neither brother is blind to the virtues – or the absurdities – of either genre. In songwriting terms, they are musical polymaths.
All of this talk of musical genres and name-checking influences might lead some to assume the songs on Go to School are derivative or might be some kind of “dad rock”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even when paying homage to one of their greatest musical idols, as Michael does on his Big Star-ish “Queen of My School”, it still sounds like a Lemon Twigs song. They inhabit their influences completely without being overpowered by them. As if to underline that point, Big Star’s drummer, Jody Stephens, plays on one of Go to School’s songs, “The Student Becomes the Teacher”, not on “Queen of My School”. The Lemon Twigs didn’t feel the need to gild the lily.
I interviewed both brothers separately last week, but I have chosen not to quote from their interviews at length because their music speaks for itself. However, Michael and Brian illuminated a couple of Go to School’s story points for me. There is an open-endedness to the story that was a deliberate choice by the writers. For example, Shane’s school experience ends violently when he sets fire to the gymnasium (on song 12, “The Fire”), killing 100 people. When I expressed my horror at Shane’s actions, Brian had a different perspective. “He sets fire to the school in an act of revenge that is supposed to show the corruptibility of even the most pure at heart under the right circumstances,” he said. “Because of the nature of it being a fire and not some other form of violence, the death of all those people
was not necessarily the intention there, you know?”
“The Fire” also has a grisly postscript, with Shane appearing to be callous, if not gleeful, in the aftermath:
And oh when he struck the match to make the big payback, he said “Shananananananana”
He thought that “We’re all so wrong” and he cried alone and said “Shanananannananana”
And the girl and the kids and all that his parents did, he said “Shananananananana”
Ooh he thought we’re all so wrong and with this he’d finally have won, “Shanananananananana”
And it increased the pain, poor poor Shane, “Shanananananananana”
And he ran and he ran
Set to a surprisingly upbeat musical motif, it paints a bleak picture but Michael, the song’s principal writer, told me he sees it a little differently. “I always pictured the sha-na-nas as [Shane] running through the forest and … leaves brushing up against a very fast-moving camera, you know?” he said “It’s like the whole world is falling on him after that … The whole album is very visual for me.”
After the catastrophe of “The Fire”, the next two songs, “Home of a Heart (The Woods)” and “This Is My Tree”, depict Shane returning to his natural habitat and his growing sense of self-awareness. The album’s finale, “If You Give Enough”, is one of the most beautiful new songs I’ve heard for a very long while. There is nothing to suggest there will be any redemption for Shane in the eyes of the world but it appears he can forgive himself. Written by Brian, he explained it to me like this: “Being in the woods and total isolation for the rest of his life is a form of punishment for his actions. But what he realises there, is he still feels love inside even though he can’t share it or get it from anybody.” He added: “When you feel love from a person, someone is giving you a gift of being able to recognise it within yourself and maybe you can feel that, or something close to that, all the time.”
I haven’t been this excited by an album or a band since Car Seat Headrest. My enthusiasm may strike some readers as hyperbole, but I’m absolutely floored by these two musicians and I can’t wait to see what they will come up with in the future. For starters, I believe musical theatre may have found two unique voices to help move that presently moribund art form towards new horizons. Rock, too, may have found a couple of saviours. Regardless of where they may go next, we should treasure them for what they are already producing right now. I love this band.
CULTURE Junction Arts Festival
Venues throughout Launceston, September 5-9
White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, September 7-February 3
THEATRE Ich Nibber Dibber
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, September 5-23
VISUAL ART HERE&NOW18: Besides, it is always the others who die
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, until December 8
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, September 7-9
VISUAL ART Meditation on a Bone: Albert Tucker Beyond the Modern
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until February 24
THEATRE The Fall
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until September 1
CLASSICAL Mediterráneo: Music from the courts of Spain
City Recital Hall, Sydney, September 5-14
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, September 15-16
VISUAL ART Kathy Temin: White Garden Intervention (ASG), 2018 and Rose Nolan: A Singular Impulse
Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, until September 29
THEATRE Working With Children
Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until September 29
QV Square, Melbourne, until September 23
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 1, 2018 as "Home schooled".
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