Riders in the Sky Present:
A Pair of Kings
(Woody Paul and Joey Miskulin)
Available only via their website, www.ridersinthesky.com,
www.musicwagon.com or by
calling (615) 321-3820.
|How is it possible
that a fellow, such as this writer, who has mastered the cha-cha-cha,
can drink a Manhattan with his foot, has seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight
and knows the difference between being romantic and being sentimental,
can be so smitten with the accordion, cowboy culture and Western music?
Have we been around the block one too many times? We don't really
know, nor do we want to examine our mental stability too closely,
but many of these glorious summer days have been spent with fiddler
Woody Paul, accordionist Joey "the Cow-Polka King" Miskulin
and their swell CD, A Pair of Kings.
Woody Paul has been the excellent fiddler in the
neo-Cowboy group, Riders in the Sky since its inception. Most Riders
in the Sky albums feature a Woody Paul solo, often an old jazz standard
and flag waver and it's high time someone recognized him for the
great musician he is. Joey Miskulin joined the group several years
ago as an occasional accordion player, but more importantly as a
producer of their albums. Miskulin's presence has upped the ante
for the group, taking them from very good to often great and occasionally
brilliant. His sensibilities and slick accordion licks have been
a real asset to the group.
A Pair of Kings features 12 numbers, alternating
between vocal novelties and instrumentals. The vocals are probably
popular with Riders in the Sky fans, but there are so many of them
that they kill any mood that could have been created. Paul and Miskulin
have the two least distinct voices in the group, so giving them
six songs to sing is very generous, to put it kindly. It's not that
they are bad, it's that they are superior musicians and it seems
a shame to give up a rousing polka to hear the millionth version
of I'm an Old Cowhand or a not very funny rendition of You
Stole My Wife, You Horsethief.
The rest of the news is very good. Woody and Joey
quite confidently lead us on a tour that includes a swell How
High the Moon, a clever Bunkhouse Race and the always-infectious
Jessie Polka. Paul's Celtic Medley probably should
have been on a different album but it's so beautiful, especially
the Annie Laurie part, it's hard to be too critical.
The other members of Riders in the Sky, Ranger
Doug and Too Slim, kindly stay in the background providing rhythm
and harmony through their guitar and bass, respectively. You will
notice that the album swings all the way through and quite often
will inspire a jig or a two-step, yet there are no drums or percussion
to be found! We are all for drummers and bongo players but it's
always a treat when musicians can swing this hard on their own.
Young whippersnappers should take note!
Hot Club of Cowtown
Hightone Records HCD8124
|Despite the odd
Art Nouveau art direction of the cover, The Hot Club of Cowtown does
not produce Salon music. It's instead really fine dance music that
owes as much to Western Swing (honoring the diverse styles of both
Spade Cooley and Bob Wills) as to Django Reinhardt. Throw in the Squirrel
Nut Zippers, and you get the idea.
The group consists of Whit Smith (guitar), Elana
Fremerman (fiddle) and new cowtown-boy, Matt Weiner on bass. They
all join in on the vocals. Each shines as a soloist but the really
amazing thing is the rhythm. More than any recent recording, Dev'lish
Mary proves that modern drumming has made modern musicians lazy.
There's not a drum beat to be heard and yet you can dance for hours.
Of course a drum kit has its place, but many modern groups are too
dependent on it. Rhythm comes from a lot of places, like the rest
of the band, the lyrics, the chord changes and even foot stomps.
The tracks are a nice mix of pop standards, old-tymie
favorites and songs of the west. Whit Smith is a wonderful, relaxed
vocalist who probably prefers to stick to his guitar, but luckily
doesn't. Elana Fremerman, the group's fantastic fiddle player, is
a bit more problematic on vocals. She has a cute, direct voice that
is fine in smallish doses but she is mike'd too close and her occasional
vocals are exhausting. It's not the neurotic goofiness of Squirrel
Nut Zipper's Katharine Whalen (Gracias, Maria!), but it's not Ella.
If you have any doubts how good the Hot Club of
Cowtown are, or how compelling an instrumental can be, play Stardust
at top volume. It's a song that didn't need another interpretation
and yet this one sounds as fresh as this morning, without mangling
or re-writing the melody. Smith (on guitar) and Fremerman (on fiddle)
are clearly in love on some level and frankly, we're thrilled to
be let in on the affaire.
Emperor Norton Records EMN 7042
At first listening, Beautiful is a
typical collection of 1970s-influenced dance tracks. This is the
kind of recording that doesn't interest many of us in the least.
Especially when right off the bat, there is that worse-than-disco,
bland, thumping drum machine of a beat that the kids seem so fond
of today. Yet for some reason, we kept giving this CD a go and before
long, we found ourselves dancing.
The worst offender in the rhythm robotics
department is the opener, Beautiful Days. Good R&B has
such a rich, rhytmic subtext that it seems nothing short of stupid
to reduce it to a single thump. It's not minimalism, it's bad taste.
And it's a shame because the song is a hoot, in a hip-hugging Bill
Withers-kind of way. The next track, Paragon, is almost worse
but after that, the rhythms seem more tolerable and occasionally
even great, especially for the extended Samba, Whistle Song.
Numerous times we've found ourselves taking
a break and reaching for Beautiful. If you're looking to
keep up with kids without compromising, you might want to reach
for it as well.
The George Shearing
Back to Birdland
|Drum roll, please!
Ladies and gentlemen, we are pleased to remind you that George Shearing
and his quintet are still making the dreamiest cocktail sounds around.
Neo-nothing, kids! This is the real thing. End of drumroll, please.
Hello? Stop with the drums, thanks. We said, axe the drums!
Back to Birdland is the revived and
reformed George Shearing Quintet recorded live at Birdland in New
York in the Fall of 2000. The piano/vibe/bass thing that Shearing
perfected in the 1950s sounds as great today as it did then with
the exception of drummer Dennis Mackrel. Mr. Mackrel needs to read
the book Less Is More and then re-read it. And then maybe
the Books-on-Tape version. Actually, he is noted among musicians
as being quite good but we maintain he probably would be better
with a bigger band with less baggage than the George Shearing Quintet.