Whenever I hear music that pulls from the grand old European musics, mixing horas and mazurkas and tangos in a dark and menacing cloud of texture and complexity, yet a meance and complexity that has very pricise dance moves, I am drawn back to that scene in Down By Law, when Tom Waits is sitting on a stoop doing his corny Tom waits-porkpie hat thing, and Roberto Benigni walks up and declares with a grin "It is a sad and beautiful world" from his phrase book. The story has it that when Benigni was making the film, he had an equivalent command of English that his character did, and Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie would fuck with him, telling his incorrect slang terms, so when he had to piss, he would declare proudly to the crew "Excuse-ah me, but I have to flame!"
I feel a little like Benigni confronted with the dense thicket of old scary European stylings before me, stumbling through my phrasebook for adequate terms, so please excuse-ah myself as I flame through them.
Black Ox Orkestar
This set of traditional Jewish circle dance derived music from the Montreal cadre responsible for A Sliver Mt Zion and Godspeed You Black Emporer has a rich heady flavor like I wanted Matzoh balls to have the first time I ate them (I did have some at a NYC deli that showed me the light, but my first stab at them left me lukewarm and soft, just like the dish) The rich textures in the music, borne out of an impeccably recorded array of strings, guitars and clarinets swaying over some thunderclap percussion, sounds as if it was carved by one of those master craftsmen families you hear about, running a viola shop on the same cobblestone street for centuries, and then discovered gleaming in the dusty attic of your mind. This is not the Benny Hill "Yakkety Clarinet" Hora music that erupts when Larry David or Woody Allen are spurred to action on the screen, but heavy nuanced sound. It sways and tilts like a lost ship at sea. My favorite tracks are "Az Vey Dem Tatn" where a drone of the bass and a locust swarm of mandolins fill the dark sky as the signer intones what sounds like a prediction for the end times; and "Golem" a guitar led lamentation that makes you believe it was the reason the minor Key was inveted.
The Gotan Project
French award-winning the Gotan project make a beguiling salad out of Argentine Tango melodies, dub wise basso continuoso and club friendly beats. The singer Cristina Vilallonga, has the (probably dismissive and unfair and very-American to say) Astrid Gilberto sway to it and the music has an infections puch to it. I will concede that it has a lot of the trappings of the usual world-music-meets-club-music that is a signifier for "hip" but the Gotan has just enough weird favor that it would be too distracting to listen to while getting an overpriced haircut, but would summon the ladies to the floor to do their sultry fake tangos and sambas and whatever. And things that deliver that goal are OK in my book.
The Tango Saloon
The Tango Saloon
Julian Curwin and crew seem to take a more reverent tour through the house Astor Piazzolla built (bringing the tradition of Argentine dance music to Parisian high society in the early 20th century) on the opening track, but quickly live up to the reputation of precise musicianship and rampant eclecticism that the Impecac imprint signifies, with out going into completely self-serving John Zorn territory with the material. The Tango Saloon does imbibe the devil's dance music with some Peckinpah Western scope (in fact there are similarities between this record and Calexico's music goulash) but its heart is still in Buenos Aries. Accordions and tasteful drumming lie comfortably with arcing horn sections an the occasional rattlesnake bite. The album is a bit exausting for direct listening, but is perfect for social or travel ambience. Just enough things emerge above the tango waterline to keep it interesting, like the funk synth burbling through "Man With The Bongos" and the cerebral piano jabs and sax blurts in "Scusi" but its intelligent, playful variations on sexy sexy dance music that propels this delicious record forward. This, like the Black Ox Orkestar record, is the kind of music I always wish was on when I get into one of those Baltic blues swing moments when a Tom Waits record is invariably on, and he blows the mood with his busted bugle moan.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com