It's Friday night. You're so broke, your power and phone have just been cut off, and your last faded package of ramen noodles just crumbled into a fine, MSG-stained dust in your grubby little hands.

Now is the time to either commit yourself to a life of convenience-store crime or do something useful. Like, say, learn to play the three-button accordion, bajo sexto or electric mandolin.

Such is the giddily off-center feeling sure to well up from deep inside your rock-numbed soul a few cuts into The American Fogies, Vol.I. This 25-track excursion through the ethnicity and eccentricity of American folk music (in all its forms) broadens the definition of eclecticism to the point that you'll find yourself singing along with every Czech, Mexican, Yiddish, Cajun, Native American, Appalachian or Polish melody in some strange new variant of Esperanto.

Produced by wandering New York field recording hand (and erstwhile claw-hammer banjoist) Ray Alden, Fogies showcases the diversity of American ethnic folk-music forms from California to Croton-on-the-Hudson. Allthe recordings here were produced and engineered by Alden during a feverish trek across the U.S. that began as a search for oldtime rural Southern musicians and gradually metamorphosed into a cataloguing of all the weirdly resilient styles of down-home, front-porch and/or parlor music still being practiced in some of the most unlikely corners of the country.

Nothing is unexpected in the Lone Star State, but Brian Marshall's chirpy, staccato fiddling and high, lonesome Slavic vocals on the otherwise countrified Polish folk song "Pija Kuba" have a decidedly jarring--and stimulating--effect. Ditto for "Chitarra Romana," an Italian mandolin number given the New Mexican-coffee-house string-band treatment by the Pastatones, a goofy hodgepodge of displaced New York Italians/Sicilians and Albuquerque folkies. This madcap lineup of whirling mandolins and concertinas includes a guy (John Zito) who actually turned down the chance to sing the part of Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather. Guess he didn't like horses.

The presence of a few too many Yankee folk scenesters tends to muddy the waters of tradition a bit too much on songs like "Blue Tail Fly," New Jersey-born Dan Gellert's awkward attempt at blackface minstrelsy. But this is a minor complaint stacked up against the stark acoustic beauty of Kentuckians Carla Gover and Charlotte Lester's high-mountain gospel duet "Little Moses," and the lilting, melodic Piedmont blues of cancer-stricken mill hand Turner Foddrell and his nephew Lynn Foddrell.

Other standouts include the Croton, New York, Colombian dance band Impacto Vallenato on the propulsive "La Gota Fria"; Houston-based Sabias Espinosa and Freddie Porras' oompah-ish Tejano conjunto "La Repetida"; and Mount Airy, North Carolina, guitarist Wayne Henderson's dizzying acoustic runs up and down the fret board on the instrumental "Chow Time."

Because the good ole music biz is so diversity-shy (heavy sigh goes here), you'll likely never find this album at Best Buy. All the more reason to seek it out with a vengeance before you take your next ascetic vow and hightail it for the high desert in search of some good sand-clogging, a cheap balalaika and some multicultural, polka-playing neighbors.--Kevin Roe

The Lindsays
Tippett: The 5 String Quartets

The Lindsays, one of the most consistently satisfying string ensembles in the classical kingdom, are coming to town this week for a performance Thursday night at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

This is good news.
Even better news is that the Lindsays will be playing selections by Beethoven (No. 15 inA minor, Opus 132), Haydn (No. 2 in Dminor, Opus 71) and Bartók (No. 6), all of which (especially Bartók) make up some of the quartet's finest recorded moments.

The Lindsays, however, won't be playing anything from another landmark in their discography, the string quartets of Sir Michael Tippett.

Which isn't such good news.
The Lindsays have a special relationship with Tippett, having worked alongside the aging-but-still-reigning king of British modernism on a variety of efforts. Tippett's Fourth and Fifth Quartets, for example, were written especially for the Lindsays, with the Sheffield, England-based group performing the premiŹres of both.

The Lindsays' composer-approved handling of Tippett's chamber music is anthologized on a newly released double disc that collects Tippett's five string quartets in one jewel box, a long-awaited piece of packaging for Tippett fans. The first three quartets in the collection were originally recorded and released together 20 years ago, and they hold up as highlights in this new home.

The rousing finale of No. 1 is enough to turn any ear. The same goes for the energetic third movement of No. 2, and the nuances and contemplative nature of No. 3. These quartets are considered at, or near, the top in terms of 20th-century British chamber music, and the Lindsays give the pieces a palpable sense of warmth and discovery.

The Fourth and Fifth Quartets are tougher to take. The jagged Fourth has its moments with its stair-step sequences of rising and falling notes that are agreeably complex, butthe rest of the piece feels flat and about as ingratiating as sandpaper. The music is supposed to be based on a life-cycle, "birth to death" kind of theme, but often the liveliestmoments sound like resuscitated Beethoven, a criticism that also applies to No.5, only more so. Neither piece has the weight of Nos. 1 to 3.

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