Turn Up That Noise
An eclectic survey of recent recordings.
Stephen Grimstead, Editor
Our favorite lovable California-based cut-ups, Those Darn Accordions!, return proudly to the musical marketplace with their newest recorded effort, Clownhead. Their public profile has risen steadily in the two years since the release of their third CD, No Strings Attached, through spirited widely televised performances on the American Music Awards and Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular, not to mention their warm alliance with accordion-friendly comedian Drew Carey.
The eight members that compose Those Darn Accordions! (six simpatico veteran squeezers augmented by a bass guitarist and percussionist) are a diverse, mixed-gender group of individuals with obvious good taste, not only in their choice of music and instrumentation, but in their promotional material as well. The baker's-dozen assortment of tunes on Clownhead runs the gamut from the extraterrestrial opener, "They Came for Accordions," to the plaintive closer, an arresting portrait of an ill-mannered slacker, "Dude."
The accordion sound throughout Clownhead has been fully integrated as an organic component and no longer jumps out of the mix to call attention to itself. This smoothness adds more complexity to the overall aural picture of Those Darn Accordions! as musicians first, accordion players second. Head honcho Paul Rogers knows exactly what he's doing navigating through some tricky turf, leading the band to areas of respectability where accordions are rarely found.
The best description would be to invert a famous comment about Spike Jones to fit Those Darn Accordions! -- they don't play music funny, they play funny music. Jaded curmudgeon critic that I am, I rarely guffaw out loud, but was prompted to do so when listening to "Hippie With a Banjo" (sample verse: "He's so simple and free/He's gonna play the damn thing anywhere he can so/Please have mercy on me/I gotta run/It's a hippie with a banjo").
Don't ever take Those Darn Accordions! for granted purely as a novelty act, because they can conjure up a gypsy rhapsody with a decidedly Spanish flavor just as quickly as they can make your polka bone pulsate (witness the trilogy of "Mucho de Nada," "Lapis Lazuli," and "Love and Lies" on Clownhead, as well as their breathtakingly beautiful rendition of the hoary Led Zeppelin classic rock chestnut, "Stairway to Heaven," on their cassette-only debut, Vongole Fisarmonica).
Clownhead covers a lot of ground and is musically all over the road, just like its promulgators Those Darn Accordions! They've been at it for a decade now, squeezing furiously away like their lives depended on it. So, until they get the opportunity to grace the sunny South with an in-person performance, Clownhead will have function in its place. -- David D. Duncan
Payin' for My Sins (Shanachie)
Grady Champion's first Shanachie release, Payin' for My Sins, is a down-home blues album with a lot more meat on its bones than the artist's more acoustic debut release. A former native of Canton, Mississippi, Champion is a young black man who obviously reveres the ancestors who spawned the blues, and this CD finds him also paying homage to later R&B pioneers as well, exploring more contemporary and uptempo material than on his previous work.
On the best tunes, Champion's voice combines a bit of the grit of John Lee Hooker with a pinch of the swagger of Howling Wolf, washed in the emotion of Otis Redding. He also wrote or co-penned 8 of the 13 tracks here, and it's obvious that he's studied the masters well.
The vitality and spark generated by the chemistry between lead guitarist Alan Mirikitani and Champion's harp and vocals really drive the whole album. Highlights include "You Got Some Explaining To Do," with its subtle horns, simmering organ and Al Green-feel, the full-throttled Chicago-flavored closing track, and "Troubled Mind," with a subterranean harmonica riff that's the perfect foil for an otherworldly slide guitar.
On some of this material, though, Champion's voice seems a bit forced, and I think his choice of covers is not very imaginative. Although his covers are solid, they are largely unremarkable, with one notable exception: His feisty rendering of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me to Talkin."
All taken, Payin' for My Sins is a fine second CD from a promising young blues talent. -- Lisa Lumb
(Grady Champion rips and snorts at Black Diamond on the 10th and 11th of September.)
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