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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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A cover-to-cover band: a few lines about the Paragraphs


The Paragraphs are a Milwaukee band, though they don't all necessarily think so. "I don't think of this as a band," said Stephen Wetzel during an interview at the Fuel Café. Wetzel is the drummer and principal organizer of the Paragraphs. "I like to think of it as a project," he said.

Bassist Didier Leplae disagreed. "It feels like a band to me," he said.

"It is a band," Wetzel says, "but I'm not a musician."

Whether a band, a project, or something else, the Paragraphs combine found texts with music and performance. Their debut shows featured lyrics taken from "Lives of a Bengal Lancer," a book written in 1930 by Major F. Yeats-Brown, a British Imperial soldier who found war and adventure in the Bengal province of eastern India.

Self-described "failed concert pianist" Renato Umali plays keyboards and writes the music for the Paragraphs. He suggested the book to Wetzel, who was intent on finding a text that would be appropriate for translation into a pop-musical format.

"(Lives of a) Bengal Lancer worked well," Umali said. "Even though it was written a century ago, some issues I was interested in about nationalism and mysticism in India seemed timeless, not confined to a certain age." Wetzel set to work on the text, then gave Umali 19 sets of lyrics, one for each chapter in the book.

At first glance, the book's subject seems outside the realm of the usual pop-music fodder.

These are some lyrics from "Chapter 1: About this Book," the first in the 19-song cycle:

I was nineteen and a half
a year before
I had become
the trusty and well beloved
servant of his majesty
King Edward the Eighth

However, further examination reveals that the book is about what most occidental 19-year-old boys think about:

a staggering thought

all this begetting and birth
and that girl with the very
big brown eyes
looking at me as if she was a deer
and I a hunting leopard

The 'Graphs next project was to combine texts from Cosmopolitan and Field & Stream magazines into one set of complementary songs. "I like anything where Renato has to fake an orgasm on stage," said accordion player Eilis (promounced ay-lish) O'Herlihy, referring to the song "How To Slow Him Down And Speed You Up."

"Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes," Umali said.

The lyrics were derived from ads, articles and letters in both magazines. Umali then sang the "Cosmopolitan" songs and O'Herlihy sang the "Field & Stream" songs. Taking words out of context inevitably changes their meaning and intent, which is something the Paragraphs find perverse delight in.

"A lot of people thought "My Buck Was So Big" was 'my butt was so big,'" O'Herlihy said. It seems the audience re-imposed female stereotypes on O'Herlihy as she sang the critique of male braggadoccio.

"As soon as you perform an advertisement, it lays itself bare," Wetzel said. "The intention and stereotypes they build on become so clear."

Umali refers to "A Fuller, Larger Bustline Instantly," a song about Accents™ breast enhancement devices. "That was such a fun song to sing," Umali said. "I felt like an old-time salesman, trying to almost go over the top but staying true to the message. It doesn't take much to see how the wording is so ludicrous."

"I think it's some kind of intellectual commentary on this totally unintellectual material," Leplae said of the "Cosmo/Field & Stream" songs.

A Paragraphs performance is perhaps less about seeing a band, and more about seeing a text unravel before your eyes. Wetzel likes it that way. "The whole 'band cult' is silly and ridiculous," Wetzel said. "What could be more conforming? Bands are supposed to be a rebellion against conformity and stagnation, yet it's the same act again and again. I want to do whatever I can to avoid playing into that."

To resist standard band cliches, the Paragraphs use theatrical vignettes with actors, video, monologues and costuming in their shows. During "The Paragraphs perform the music from Rudolph," the band stayed out of sight behind a white scrim while the audience watched the Burl Ives-narrated claymation classic on a video screen. The band cut in whenever the characters segued into song.

Several audience members could be heard clamoring for the standard band-in-a-club visual experience, but were left wondering who was doing what as the Paragraphs transformed the many classic holiday tunes from childhood into, well, classic holiday tunes.

The Paragraphs also hand out booklets with printed lyrics, so audience members can follow along with Wetzel's textual transformations. All lyrics are derived from the chosen texts, but "I mix and match sentences," Wetzel said. "I'll hack sentences up, combine them. The goal is to accurately represent the idea of each chapter in the book, then to recast it," he said, "to get at the narrative themes of the author and whatever stuff we want to poke at."

So the Paragraphs essentially tell stories in song, like traveling troubadours of old. "This idea is very, very, very old in a way," Wetzel said. "I like the idea of traveling songs, of stories that travel, but my hope is that in the end what we're dealing with are themes. Do you really need the whole book?"

So the Paragraphs are musical Cliffs Notes™? "I actually wish we were more like that, a musical book-on-tape or Cliffs Notes in the form of a band," Leplae said. "That somebody could come to a bar, see the show and come away having seen the whole story."

In the end, however, audiences may never learn whether the Paragraphs are really a band, a project, or something undefinable. Don't expect the 'Graphs themselves to know. "I think of it as a concept band," Leplae said, "where Steve thinks of it more as an art project."

"I think it's a concept band," Umali said.

"It's a project that's a band," Leplae said.

Sometimes not knowing is better than knowing. The Paragraphs' next effort will tackle "The Cloud of Unknowing," a spiritual tract written by an anonymous 15th-century author.

The Paragraphs play with The Cloud of Unknowing at Linnemann's River West Inn, 1001 E. Locust St. (263-9844) Fri., March 29 at 10 p.m.

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