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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews


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
Dev'lish Mary

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.



Fantastic Plastic Machine
Beautiful

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 Quintet
Back to Birdland

Telarc

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.


 

 

 

 

 


 



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