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The Trapp Family Singers had the sound of music. The Partridges, well, they just wanted everyone to get happy. The Carpenters? More sunshiny stuff about mountains and the weather. Yep, whether real or fictional, family bands have mostly stuck in the mind for their sheer cringe-inducing factor.
Still, over the past few years, groups whose members share DNA have been slowly creeping back onto the radar and into the grizzled hearts of music critics. See, for example, the Kings of Leon (three brothers and a cousin), the Fiery Furnaces (brother and sister), or the Magic Numbers (not one, but two pairs of siblings). But the approach of these and similar bands has been to gloss over the shared lineage and instead focus on playing straight-ahead hipster rock.
The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players follow neither of these models. Rarely does a group invent an entirely new performance concept, but the parents Trachtenburg Jason and Tina, both in their late thirties and daughter Rachel, age thirteen, have done so. There's Rachel on drums, Jason on guitar, and Tina on, um, slide projector.
While Mom clicks through a series of projected images, Dad and Daughter trade vocals that play on family memories other families', that is. Each song is based on donated or harvested long-forgotten slides grouped around an arresting image or theme. The result is literate, cheeky ditties like "Fondue Friends in Switzerland."
"When we started around 2000, I had been a regular songwriter that is to say, not a slide songwriter," says Jason, the rapid-spoken family mouthpiece, whose sweetly inquisitive non sequiturs can quickly derail a line of questioning.
Seeing that her husband was running out of steam after a decade in indie rock, Tina suggested he incorporate visuals into his show. She bought a slide projector at an estate sale and grabbed a box of slides to test the machine.
"We originally wanted to take our own pictures," says Jason, "but I guess what happened is a testament to the creative concept. We started going through the first box of slides, and out came the easiest song I ever wrote."
The title? "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959."
"We knew we'd come up with something really weird, so we figured we'd go with it," he says. Rachel was recruited soon after, at the tender age of six.
"At the time, we were living in Seattle, which is a quasi-suburban existence, with this pressure to have kids in activities," Jason explains. "And we kept trying out different drummers, but they would miss rehearsals and stuff. We knew Rachel would never miss a rehearsal."
Rachel quickly took to the drums and the stage, and when their act outgrew Seattle, they decamped to Manhattan's East Village. The Slideshow Players quickly became the Trachtenburgs' full-time gig. (Rachel is home-schooled and still enrolled in an alternative school based in Seattle.) It's not surprising. The trio has pushed past the initial novelty factor via wordy nerd rock that stands up on its own. Think, maybe, They Might Be Giants (for whom the Trachtenburgs have opened), but without the cartoony element and with topical awareness. Then there are the family members themselves, who seem to genuinely enjoy working and playing together in a way almost strangely wholesome. And the mystery behind the fading, dislocated slides is oddly poignant.
Further, the Trachtenburgs have expanded their performance repertoire, most notably with the annual "On Ice" extravaganza they'll be doing at Studio A. They take the stage on skates (admittedly just walking on them) and act out a sitcom-style script, complete with canned applause and a laugh track.
"Of course we use found Christmas slides," Jason says, "and the script examines the excesses and overabundances of our overwhelming culture at this time of year." That, structured around the fictional story of a family trapped in the house with a broken thermostat.
"Tell the audience to bring a sweater," he relays. "Okay, no, it won't really be cold. But we hope to be acting that believably."
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