Perfect Sound Forever

Professor and Maryann:
Hopeless, Romantic

By Kurt Wildermuth

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, but when I tell you about Professor and Maryann (www.professorandmaryann.com), please don't take them less than seriously because of their name--that is, because of the Gilligan's Island connection. In case you've never seen it, I should explain that Gilligan's Island was a silly 1960s sitcom about the desert-island castaways Gilligan, the Skipper, Ginger, Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell III, the Professor, and Maryann. But relax. The New York folk-pop duo Professor and Maryann are fun, but they're not a novelty act. They don't wear costumes or use coconuts as percussion instruments. They don't sing about boats, cruises, or shipwrecks.

The name came to them when they first started performing, about a decade ago. Guitarist, singer, songwriter Ken Rockwood was a college professor in New Jersey. Singing with the Professor turned Danielle Brancaccio, a hair stylist on Staten Island, into Maryann.

This silly story may be worthy of a sitcom. But the name is no sillier than, say, the Beatles, and it's far catchier than Ken Rockwood and Danielle Brancaccio. It also gives you something of a sense of their music, which deals in personas more than it delivers personal revelations. Telling stories about love and theft and magnificent moments in everyday life, Professor and Maryann perform a kind of intimate theater.

Signed to New Jersey's Bar/None Records after, amazingly, their third gig, they released their debut CD, Fairy Tale, produced by engineer Fernando Kral, in 1993. Ken's delicately finger-picked acoustic guitar determines the sound, but a handful of additional musicians (including two members of Joe Jackson's band at the time, multi-instrumentalist Tony Ellis Aiello and the venerable bassist Graham Maby) add sometimes bold, sometimes muted colors to Ken and Danielle's stark, black-and-white pictures.

The first song, "Safe," a plea for a lover's rescue from the world, is quintessential Professor and Maryann: Ken opens by establishing the rhythm on guitar; he sings the first line, "save me from the night," twice in his high, unironic, and seemingly unguarded voice; then Danielle sings the same line slightly faster and continues the verse, her voice higher, girlish, breathy. She swallows syllables, then suddenly enunciates clearly. Some lines you can discern without the lyric sheet, some you can't, and you don't know which ones sound more vulnerable, which ones more defensive.

On stage, Danielle turns notes into sonic smoke rings that linger, drift, then dissipate seconds after she has closed her mouth--she seems to control them just until they take on their own, brief lives. On Fairy Tale, she hasn't fully developed that power, but even her whispers convey more feeling than any hyper-modulating diva might muster. As a songwriter, Ken hasn't fully developed his powers here either, but his slighter songs get help from several great ones, such as the quietly devastating ballad "You Can't Use a Broken Heart" and the jazzy ode to the morgue, "The Only Cool Spot in Town."

The subtle surrealism that appears in these lyrics, as in the title and near-narrative of "I Keep the Moon in My Car," figures even more prominently throughout Professor and Maryann's second CD, Lead Us Not into Penn Station (1995, Bar/None). In case you're not familiar with New York City's subterranean railroad terminus, Pennsylvania Station, I should explain that everyone who enters or leaves this hellhole curses the experience. Inside the CD booklet, snippets of prose interspersed between the lyrics weave these otherwise unconnected songs into a tale that takes place at the station, a little story worthy of French provocateur André Breton: "Although it seems like a lifetime away, the masses dream of the night. A night when everything goes right. A night that occurs once in each lifetime here on planet earth, if you're lucky."

Uniformly well-written and unpretentiously literary, like Tom Waits's early stuff but without so much Beat influence, Ken's songs draw you into a variety of places and moods, from a "Flea Circus" to "Tropical Rain" to "Stumbling Home." "Cadillac (I'm Still in Love with You)" performs the Dylanesque trick of conveying an emotional situation through disparate images--"the back seat of your Cadillac is red and long," "if a bee lands on your collar tonight," "a little girl with curly hair smiles trick or treat." Ken and Danielle often trade vocals from song to song, but they both sing on this one, and just before he delivers the line "I'm still in love with you," she exhales a series of "ooh"s (you can picture the smoke rings) that convey the ache. If on Fairy Tale Maryann is the Professor's secret weapon, on this recording she becomes the Rogers to his Astaire, adding a tough sexiness to his finesse. Tony Ellis Aiello and Graham Maby reappear on Penn Station, which Aiello also produces; but they depart for the next one, Professor and Maryann (2001, Bar/None). On this recording--not just a return but a triumphant leap ahead--Professor and Maryann perform without accompaniment. Danielle achieves that union of Edith Piaf and Rickie Lee Jones she's been seeking all these years; Ken also sings and plays guitar, concertina, and ukelele, charmingly; and producer Tom DeVito gives their voices and instruments so much presence that the duo seems to be performing right inside your speakers.

Perhaps they had set out to wipe away the tentativeness of those first two CD's, to clean the slate and start over with nothing but strengths. "Lonesome Old World," the first track, is a "Safe"-like plea, maybe even an intentional revision of the opening song on their debut. Or maybe not. Maybe the point isn't revision but vision: Professor and Maryann envision an ideal world, "a perfect night" (as a song on Penn Station puts it), in which two people are true to each other: "We were history in the making / You and I," "Don't worry my love / You are home," and so on. One song on Professor and Maryann looks at a couple of Bonnie and Clyde-like bank robbers; others address the Jet Age, a guy who lives on New York's Ludlow St., a ballerina atop a music box; but the collection as a whole has the feel of a two-character film noir. It always reminds me of the great love scene in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), where Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum are in a clinch on the couch and the camera looks away just as a stormwind blows into the room.

Metaphorical storms have appeared in Ken's lyrics, but real thunder rumbles during "Roof of the World," a slow and sultry song on Professor and Maryann's latest CD, the aptly titled Runaway Favorite (2003, Happy Thighs). As atmospheric as it is intimate, "Roof of the World" presents another place two people go to get away from it all:

I'll build you a city of shimmering lights
I'll blur the edges for you
Exaggerate its height
I'll shine the tops of every building
So it may come to life
As the air fills
Your eyes with the thrill
Of the moon tacked to the sky
Like a pearl
I'll meet you on the roof of the world
In "Bible and a Gun," meanwhile, "two modern day sinners" try to make their getaway, but end up going nowhere fast. "Electric Metropolis" finds the speaker and an unnamed "you" plunging into a city described as a "hidden world," a "busy world," a "surreal world," a "sunken world." Elsewhere, "it's a world of clowns," a three-ring circus you don't want to join. "Every other minute," as another song puts it, "it's the end of the world." The only answer, in "Chariot," is to turn passionate love into a form of motion and ride off. We'll be "thick as thieves" as we make a killing, or something, at the dog track--in fact, as we run like dogs.

If Professor and Maryann realized a film noir scenario, Runaway Favorite provides the tragicomic sequel, part crime caper, part romance, part urban science fiction, part Felliniesque extravaganza. If, by the same token, the previous CD established Professor and Maryann's basic sound, this one builds on that foundation, adding drums (played by Tom DeVito, who again produces), bass (Matt Lindsey), cello (Julia Kent), violin (Maxim Morton), theremin (Pamelia Kurstin), even tiple (Ken). Although Ken now strums more than plucks, the overall approach isn't radically different for the duo, but the arrangements bring new dimensions and dynamics to their set of possibilities, adding vastness to the ballads, propulsion to the up-tempo numbers, an extra layer of good-natured melancholy throughout. If you'd told me that Professor and Maryann were incorporating a children's chorus into an original Christmas song, or at least a nonreligiously Christmas-y song, distantly reminiscent of John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," I'd probably have run in the other direction; but "Ten Tubas," the CD's closer, avoids schmaltz and transcends holiday cheer by being funny, catchy, musically daring, and more than a little odd.

That not every listener will appreciate this music, that not every musical subculture will consider it "cool," represents just part of Runaway Favorite's value. As always, Professor and Maryann sound delighted to inhabit their own little world, which fits them perfectly. "I'm just one of the millions who / spend their days dreaming like fools" is a key couplet in Runaway Favorite's "Wish Symphony," an almost trip-hop-like shuffle that could serve as Professor and Maryann's manifesto. "There's a hopeless romantic hanging on the words of a song," it explains. If you're that kind of person, this might be your kind of music.


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