Exploring the Recent Crop of Ukulele Missteps

Dent May performs with a ukulele in Leeds, England, March 2009. Photo: Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns

Hive Five: Our daily listicle of musical musings.

Dent May is a very dangerous man. Oh, you might not think it to look at him — with his big glasses and purposely preppy outfits, it seems like he’s trying with all his might to out-geek Elvis Costello circa This Year’s Model (admittedly no easy feat). But the Mississippian’s most destructive weapon is in fact the humble little instrument that helped make him notable. May was initially championed by Animal Collective and given a home on their Paw Tracks label partly because of his facility on the wee axe known as the ukulele, as was made plain by the pithy title of his 2009 debut album, The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele. However, there was much more to May than his peculiar choice of instrumentation — ultimately it was his sharp, sophisticated songwriting and arch artistic sensibilities that made him an indie-pop attraction.

His second record, Do Things, was unleashed this week, and it finds May effectively transcending uke-pop for a more eclectic approach and a fuller production style, touching on everything from fuzz-guitar rock riffs to hotfoot funk. But it’s too late, the damage has already been done — May has already helped to perpetuate the perilous illusion that it’s cute, quirky, and “alternative” to play pop music on the ukulele, inspiring less gifted artists to take the uke-pop path to fatal hipsterdom. But don’t take our word for it — take a peek into this terrifying realm of four-string folly, and find out for yourself.

1. Amanda Palmer

When the ukulele Judgement Day arrives at last, Amanda Palmer will have far more to answer for than May, having led even more innocent souls down the dark path. As a goth-pop diva with Dresden Dolls she was great, but as the uke-strumming evil clown of indie cabaret, she is a walking, talking, strumming cautionary tale.

2. Zooey Deschanel

Sure, it’s as ostensibly hip to hate on Zooey as it is to play quirky-cute uke-pop, but just because her offenses are numerous, that doesn’t make them any less serious. Putting aside all other cavils for the moment, let’s try to reason with the woman. Zooey, you’re in a band with M. Ward. He’s an excellent musician who happens to play an actual guitar quite well. There’s no call for you to be busting out the uke at a She & Him show, let alone plugging the damn thing in.

3. Sophie Madeleine

Here’s another winsomely cute girl with bangs, a wispy voice, and a 1960s secretary wardrobe. Hey, maybe she could find a similarly styled friend to generate a charmingly cheap-sounding minimalist drum-machine beat from a keyboard, and a bearded guy to tinkle out a melody on a xylophone. Oh, wait …

4. Eddie Vedder

Yes, that’s right, the original poster boy for grunge was apparently so besotted with the appeal of uke-pop that he couldn’t resist applying it to his own moody musings on his Ukulele Songs solo album of 2011. We only wish we were making this stuff up, especially upon hearing Vedder’s deep, husky tones atop the tinny plinking of his axe. “Our next guest singlehandedly made playing the ukulele cool,” says a deluded David Letterman in his introduction. No, Dave. No, he didn’t. Not unless your next guest is Tiny Tim.

5. LP

Stop it. Just stop it. You’ve got a whole band full of real instruments, just put that thing away. And the whistling doesn’t help matters either, unless you’re working on your audition for an Andrew Bird cover band.

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