Attention Indie-Rock: No Ukes

March 31, 2011

Except as employed in the traditional music of its native Hawaii, the undersized four-stringed chordophone may be the lamest—or at least the silliest—instrument of all time; it just screams “kitsch,” and to these ears, it obnoxiously cutesies up any music it touches. Yet suddenly it’s the axe of choice for an increasing number of hipsters or wannabes.
 
What the heck is up with all these ukuleles all of the sudden?
 
The trend first crossed this blogger’s radar last year when the cheekily titled Neutral Uke Hotel began to tour with its live rendition of Neutral Milk Hotel’s enduring and heartbreakingly beautiful 1998 album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”—performing the entirety of it on ukes. (The group comes to Schubas on April 23.)
 
 
Although the original classic album boasts an underground orchestra’s worth of odd instrumentation—from flugelhorn to Uilleann pipes, and from euphonium to zanzithophone—there is no ukulele. So what gives with this shticky cover idea?
 
According to Neutral Uke Hotel’s press materials, main man Shawn Fogel (vocals and ukulele) lists Jeff Magnum’s opus as “one of my favorite albums ever,” adding that his goal in covering it on uke is “to strip these songs down and get people in a room to share their love for this album.”
 
Apparently, nothing says “love” like a ukulele; just ask Miss Vicki.
 
Next case in the docket: Indie-rock rave of the moment tUnE-yArDs, the wildly ambitious, wonderfully rousing big band that started out as a bedroom project by Merrill Garbus. The Oakland-based singer and songwriter is a huge talent, to be sure, and her second album “Whokill,” forthcoming in April, promises to be even stronger than her 2009 debut, judging from the songs this critic has heard her perform live.
 
 
But, damn, what’s up with that tiny twanger? Get a grown-up guitar, Merrill!
 
Finally, as if this story in the Montreal Gazette or Train’s song of the year Grammy-winning hit “Hey Soul Sister” were not evidence enough that it’s time to put the stake through the heart of this trend, we have erstwhile Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder soiling the previously respectable rep he built up as a solo artist with his soundtrack to “Into the Wild” by releasing a new disc called “Ukulele Songs” and bringing those ditties to the stage of the Chicago Theatre on June 28.
 
 
Is it time to learn to stop worrying and love the uke? Sorry, but one visit to the Ukulele Review Web site is enough to make even the kazoo seem cool in comparison.