Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Japonize Elephants' "Melodie Fantastique"

Myself, I blame Tom Waits.

If he hadn't teamed up with Kathleen Brennan and subsequently, with the release of Swordfishtrombones 30 (!) years ago, steered his career into a ditch even weirder than the one Neil Young headed for in the mid-'70s, we wouldn't be dealing with the glut of "twisted cabaret" acts -- you know, the kind that favor banjos, gypsy fiddles, accordions, and early 20th century-ish attire, and play music more redolent of Kurt Weill than the usual blues 'n' country suspects -- currently pounding the boards. Of those I've heard, Mark Growden and Tin Hat Trio are my favorites, and Japonize Elephants are another worthy one.

At first listen, their latest offering, Melodie Fantastique -- dedicated to departed band member Evan Farrell -- hits like an antique recording of jarringly modern musical fare. The title track has a cinematic sound, as if Bela Bartok and Bernard Herrmann collaborated on a soundtrack. Lyrics are cryptic, verging on Dada: "You fancy yourself a writer / Respond these questions three / Show her what she's won Nancy / A cut above the knee" (from "The Ancient Mariner's Boat Show"). "Endtimes, the Theme from Bat Boy" is a sinister instrumental worthy of Danny Elfman, while "The Publisher's Clearing House Sweeptakes" is a klezmer-rific rendering of a tale larded with contemporary garbage culture references. Side One ends with "Bruesters," a fiddle/banjo/steel-driven country lament with lyrics that would have had folks scratching their heads if it'd been broadcast on The Grand Ole Opry.

Turning the record over, the sequence "La Vida callejon rapida"-into-"Lord Crin Crin" conjures images of Mickey Katz's band bus getting lost somewhere in old Mexico, and the klezmorim mixing it up with the cantina band. From there, it's a short hop to the Wild West-themed "Willie's Whiskey II," which is equally evocative of Ennio Morricone (the whistling) and Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole strolling through The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. "Call the Zagorsky" and "The Zorlockian Anthem" sound like nothing so much as prog-rock in rustic old-timey garb. And the straight reading of "Stardust" is my favorite since, well, Willie Nelson's.

All in all, Melodie Fantastique is a mad romp that'll appeal to listeners who understand that there was popular music in America before 1956, soundtrack aficionados, and anyone whose tastes in tuneage are a little left of center. God bless the Japonize Elephants and all who sail on her.


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