April 13th, 2012
Madison purveyors of Balkan lounge funk, Reptile Palace Orchestra, released Songs and Dances of Madisonia this spring, their first album since 2003’s We Know You Know. There has been some molting since then with Kia Karlen and Greg Smith assuming duties on accordion and brass from Timm Gould and Doug Code. Plus singer Anna Purnell left the band to form Chick Singer although she plays and sings on a few songs here. Thusly this album represents the debut of her replacement, Maggie Weiser.
Weiser is given a chance to strut her stuff on the leadoff track “Sev Kardesim”. Also known as “Turkish Hora” (a hora being a type of Eastern European dance), drummer Robert Schoville and bassist Ed Feeny keep a simple beat that’s adorned by accordion, clarinet, and Biff Blumfumgagnge’s violin. Weiser may sing in a slightly higher register than her predecessor but her voice is just as rich and lissome as she demonstrates here with her crooning about subject matter unknown since I don’t speak Turkish.
Fans of RPO love to do circle dances at their concerts and this album offers a plethora of such tunes to get listeners’ bums a-movin’. The folkdance music of Bulgaria gets special attention here with five songs including “Snosti si Rada pristana” which is described in the liner notes as a barn-burner. And so it is. Clarinet and violin play in unison while Purnell pleads her soulful billet-doux to the listener. This is the second time the song has appeared on an album, the first being back in 1996 on the live album On the Wings of a Skink. Also seeing new life is “Guisevska Racenica”, which appeared on the band’s debut Early Reptile. The main differences between the previous versions and these new ones is the presence of the drum kit. “Bavno Horo” begins as a slow burner perfectly suitable for holding your honey close but finishes at breakneck pace with clarinet, violin, and trumpet all racing along.
Similarly the Macedonian dance number “Žensko Camce” simmers with a mournful violin melody before the pace picks up. There’s even a bit of Arabic operetta here in the form of “Marakebna Al Mina” sung by Mryriam Darsouni, an Algerian friend of the band. Guitar and sax trade licks in between bursts of her smooth, honeyed voice. “Wash Your Hands” may be a piece of throwaway calypso but is ultimately great fun. It lacks nothing in the shake yer booty department and Weiser’s sultry vocals make personal hygiene irresistible.
But not everything here is a folk dance from Eastern Europe as the band are happy to inject some originals into the proceedings. “Skeleton Dance” is a spooky little shuffle by cellist Seth Blair while a stuttering drum box and washes of synth finds the band veering towards Brian Eno in “Lycanthropy”. “Rude Oud” began life a few years ago on an album by The Gomers, another of Biff’s bands, only it actually featured an oud and Frippertronics from the man himself. Here, the vaguely bluesy, arabesque oud riff is ported to the violin where it’s joined by guitar (or is that Biff’s Mandocaster?). Soon enough the sprightly melody opens up and there’s room for Smith to do something akin to David Jackson in his freest of moments. And if that weren’t enough, we get some manic guitar soloing before Biff imagines what Robert Fripp would do with a violin.
The truly odd thing is how well Balkan dance music sits with proggy eccentricites and Enossified minimalism plus dashes of Arabia and the Caribbean thrown in for good measure. Hopefully we won’t have to wait nine years again for another dose of pan-Slavic weirdness.