Giant Robot Dance (Andrew Marcus, Aaron Marcus, Noah Van Norstrand, Andrew Van Norstrand, Michael Ferguson, and Alex Ferguson) has made their mark with quirky sets that combine traditional tunes with pop tunes and other covers to create a distinct and unique band personality. Their first live album, Live at the Butterball,
featured caller Beth Molaro's voice over their sets; this album, also live and recorded at Contrastock I in Maryland in May 2011 and Summer Soiree in North Carolina in June 2012, omits the calls but preserves the band's music at these two events.
They did not, however, edit themselves out and you can occasionally hear the band's comments akin to "One more time!" and some of the more distinctive audience reactions in the background when the band really gets going, and these sounds remind listeners that this is a live album.
The first track, which per the liner notes combines the traditional tune "Sheepskin & Beeswax" with an original creation, starts out frankly sounding like any other high-energy contra dance band...and then when it switches to the second tune (written by band member Andrew Marcus), it kind of explodes into high energy distortion-pedaled accordion and a fiery fiddle with a kickin' drum solo thrown in for good measure.
The next track, which combines Tchaikovsky's theme from Swan Lake
and Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," is part of where Giant Robot gets its reputation for having a really varied repertoire. It underscores that alternative contra is not just about pulling from one genre of music -- or even exclusively about pulling from things more modern than the folk Tradition usually encompasses: it can pull from many other genres. What is really interesting about this is that it is handled with aplomb to be deftly made into a set of contra tunes, with the look and feel of contra even as dancers and listeners pick up on the tune from another context entirely.
"Other Andrew's Favorite" very heavily features the trombones and the guitar and achieves a sound that is rather uniquely Giant Robot.
The "Frank's Reel/Firework" track highlights the neat and unexpected quality of GRD's combinations; the former is a spirited lively tune that doesn't seem to share much with a cover of Katy Perry's "Firework," until you listen to the pattern of the backing chords in the climb of the latter song. This seemingly subtle link works to blend the songs into a very fun mash-up. The album then changes gears; "Fly Around" highlights that Giant Robot Dance is not just a gimmick band, and that they have chops on traditional tunes as well.
I am particularly fond of the final track for its variety, between Andrew Marcus's composition "Meridian Hill," U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with the melody carried on the trombone and the guitar, and Elton John's "Circle of Life," all tied together with the keyboard in a really neat way to finish off the album with a bang...and perhaps a cycle back to the first track for another listen-through. Spontaneous Animation is available both as a CD and a digital download from CD Baby. More information about the band can be found on Giant Robot Dance's web site at www.giantrobotdance.com.
Update, 8/23/2012, 11:46 P.M.: I heard from Andrew Marcus and he pointed out that the tune they had called "Other Andrew's Favorite" on their first album was not, in fact, the same piece called "Other Andrew's Favorite" on this album. Mea culpa. That sentence has been edited; the rest remains as originally posted. -REH
After Steve and I reviewed Fiddlefoxx's Invasion a while back
, I decided to delve deeper into their eclectic canon and came up with UFO
, their 2007 offering. Overall, I liked Invasion
better, but I liked some of the individual tracks on UFO
more than their individual counterparts on Fiddlefoxx's later album.
It takes until about the third track, "Boston Freeze," for Fiddlefoxx to really warm up and hit their stride between tradition and innovation. This specific track reminds me a bit of Notorious
's "Ice Storm" on their self-titled album, but there's a lot more layering in effect.
The titular track, "UFO," is slowed way down in comparison to its hyperactive predecessor, "Studio 54/Reverse Exploding Snowflake/Detached" and as such is almost ponderous. Its surreal, eerie fiddle stretches out over active beatboxing and combines both serene fiddle and excited rhythm until the very end of the track.
My favorite track on this album is "Ouzel Falls." It might be contra-able and is the most traditional-sounding track of the lot. The beatboxing here reminds me quite a bit of Appalachian clogging, and the fiddling here is really pretty. Similarly, I am fond of the track later on the album entitled "Mathieu."
"Mandofunk" is aptly named, as it seems to be equal parts mandolin (moonlighting here like a ukelele), fiddle, beatbox, and funk. This tune is also notable because it is actually square.
I couldn't do a review of this album without mentioning "Hippopotamus Giraffe Orangutan." If someone wants to go violate copyright law (unless they are members of Fiddlefoxx) and make a viral video, they should take this song, illustrate it with screenshots of the appropriate animals, and throw it up onto YouTube to join the ranks of "The Llama Song"
and Weebl's "Kenya."
"Kenya"'s default setting is to loop!) "Hippopotamus Giraffe Orangutan" earworms like crazy. The vocals reminded me vividly enough of They Might Be Giants' "Particle Man
" that I actually had to double check to be sure I hadn't accidentally skipped to a TMBG album.
All in all, this is a rather diverse collection from the artists who put together the eclectic (though somewhat more polished) Invasion
and show a rather cool collaboration between Tradition and beatboxing.
Fiddlefoxx is made up of Andy Reiner (who also plays in Firecloud and assorted other Tradition-based bands) and Steve Foxx.
UFO is available for purchase as a CD or digital download at CDBaby and some of the tracks can be found on Fiddlefoxx's MySpace page.
by Ryan E. Holman and Steven "Trouble" Roth
When Andy Reiner came through Glen Echo as part of Firecloud
earlier this month, we picked up his 2008 collaboration CD with beatboxer Steve Foxx, Invasion
"Make sure you crank that one," Andy directed Ryan. So on our way down to Chattaboogie, Ryan was a good contra dancer and did as she was told.
As we went Googling to do some research on Invasion
, we found that Fiddlefoxx classifies themselves as "psych-folk" and we suppose that's as good a label as any -- as we were listening to it, despite there only being half a dozen tracks, we actually lost count of how many different things this album reminded us of, but we will try to recall some of them as we go.
The album opens with "Jambadalay," which mixes a 1960's sort of vibe (think Harry Belafonte) with folk fiddling and hip-hop rhythms. The eclectic mix of influences also reminds us of Blues Traveler, for those who are fans, with some really neat harmonies.
"Ewon" is the first song on this album that has a distinct beginning, middle, and end, with beatboxing framing the vocals and some stretching, wailing fiddle. It recalls the Yellow-Submarine-era Beatles (including some speculation as to precisely what sort of mushrooms are on this "lonely mushroom island" described the lyrics...'nuff said).
The next track, "Vocal Break," is aptly named; there are some really tight harmonies here and this track grows on you as I=you listen to the album a few times through.
The penultimate track, "Bom Biddly Ee," picks some interesting spoken-word, sung harmony, and instrumental samples to loop; the end result is a quirky and very representative track of the album.
The last track, "The Remembered Visit," goes more toward the hip-hop end of the spectrum, with the folkie fiddle framing a cool, smooth rap groove that actually recalls "Epic Rap Battles of History" in a really oblique way and serves as a fare-thee-well conclusion for the audience.
The variety of influences on this particular project is rather fascinating and it's particularly interesting in light of hearing Andy (the fiddle in Fiddlefoxx) play as part of Firecloud with Julie Vallimont for a live mixed fiddletechno-influenced contra dance; we may have to go delve deeper to go find their previous album, UFO
Listening to this album as contra dancers (and especially in the context of being introduced to Andy at an actual contra dance), we found ourselves at times expecting the music in this album to come out square. (That is, to find all of the phrasing to be in the normal 64-beat pattern of all traditional contra music.) Fiddlefoxx refuses to let itself become so compartmentalized, however. "Tripleslip" includes the occasional measure of 6/8 time that completely throws off any attempt to count out its rhythm. "Vocal Break" technically is
square, however the constant stress on the backbeat throughout the piece would make it challenging for contra dancers to follow.
At first, the idiosyncratic phrasing made it hard to categorize the music of this album -- it's way
too quirky to listen to it as pop music, but it doesn't fit the forms of folk music either. However, that very lack of category fits Fiddlefoxx perfectly. They're not out there to follow in anyone else's footsteps. They are creating their own brand new sound, borrowing whatever they need to from other influences along the way.
Invasion is available for CD purchase and digital download on CDBaby and several of the tracks are available on Fiddlefoxx's Myspace page.
I talked to Julie Vallimont
(of Nor'easter and Double Apex), I learned that the other half of Double Apex, Brendan Carey Block
, had been performing his own experiments with techno music. Like any curious person of the digital age, I consulted Google to learn more. What I found was not only that Brendan, the 2000-2001 U.S. National Junior Scottish Fiddle Champion, had recently parted ways with contra bands Annalivia and Matching Orange to pursue other projects, but that one of those other projects was DJing under the moniker Matt Blackfield. Further, earlier this year, The Matt Blackfield
was released for digital download.The Matt Blackfield Project
is a rather eclectic blend of folk flavoring and evocative electronic techno. All of the tracks create lush soundscapes, and if I was more inclined as a visual artist, I might have been reaching for some paint and a canvas (and created very different pieces to suit each track's mood).
To wit: the collection opens with a watery, echoey rendition of "Fingal's Cave," which the liner notes
tell us is an ancient Scottish march with some modern treatment. The addition of the enigmatic, echoey spoken-word passage from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
made my inner literature geek smile and adds another dimension to the piece.
The sixth track, "Short Road, Long Journey," opens with a keyboard loop before introducing more mechanical effects and bells that sound a bit like a rushing crowd. It then shifts to a lower variant of the melody and then weaves a bunch of layers together before it fades out and leaves the distinct impression that the listener has just glimpsed a scene that will continue even
after it becomes inaudible.
My favorite track, however, is "Dark Field," which frankly to me sounds like a group of pixies decided to crash into the titular field and hold a rave; it opens with cricket-like noises and night sounds, then adds some sparse but reverberating keyboard and then a thumping beat and some steadier, higher-toned drums.
Interestingly, it isn't until relatively late in The Matt Blackfield Project
's eleven tracks that we hear a lot of the fiddle playing for which Brendan has up until now been known. Both "Soda Springs" and "Leaving Lake Morey" are square (or nearly so) tunes that feature the fiddle heavily and remind me a bit of Perpetual e-Motion
's work. For "Leaving Lake Morey," Brendan notes in the liner notes that it was composed "for [his] departure from the fantastic community at the lakeside Hulbert Outdoor Center" and the sense of farewell and longing in this piece is rather clear. "Soda Springs," on the other hand,
features some hot fiddle action with some equally hot guitar sounds and framed very well by a backing drum loop.
While this is very much an electronic album, The Matt Blackfield Project
still shows off Brendan's folkie roots (I was a bit surprised to figure out that about half the tunes are square
, or exceedingly close to it) and provides for a foray into the full spectrum of the multidimensional, if somewhat disjointed, world this Project
has created.The Matt Blackfield Project is available for digital download at Brendan Carey Block's web site and is also streamable from his Facebook page and his Myspace.
Back in September when
Giant Robot Dance (comprised of Michael Ferguson, Noah VanNorstrand, Andrew VanNorstrand, Aaron Marcus, and Andrew Marcus) is probably the only band I know that regularly reinvents pop and rock covers while incorporating an accordion. Even those of us who believe that the perfect pitch of an accordion involves missing the banjo on the way into the dumpster (sorry, old joke) can appreciate the way this band makes both traditional tunes and modern ones accessible. They bridge the two genres almost seamlessly live, and their album Live at the Butterball
is no different. Recorded at Butterball 2009 in Philadelphia, the album captures the energy of the event and the dancers.
What does make it different than other live albums I've heard, however, is that the recording maintains not only the sounds of the dancers' feet, but also Beth Molaro's melodic calling as she calls a rather challenging square and several contras. Whereas on paper I would think this would be a distraction, it actually serves to help transport thr listener to the event, much like other genres' live albums incorporating the patter of the artists between songs. While the album is regrettably only half a dozen tracks, the ones that are there are evenly balanced between traditional tunes, which open several of the tracks (e.g., "Tam Lin," "Julia Delaney") and Giant Robot Dance's signature covers (my personal favorite of theirs, "Smells Like Tween Spirit," is on here -- no, that is not a typo, and no, you have not heard this tune until you have heard it with a trombone and an accordion). The final track is a waltz rendition of "Rainbow Connection," which sounds quite a bit like a cameo by Kermit the Frog in a well-meaning tribute, and "Memory."
Unlike some live albums, this one loses nothing in translation (and I can attest this having danced to them at Dandelion Romp last weekend). I just wish it had more tracks. Live at the Butterball is available for digital download on CD Baby.
Every time Perpetual e-Motion (John Coté and Ed Howe) plays at Glen Echo, they draw a bigger-than-usual crowd (we even managed to get one of our regular servers from the Silver Diner to come to a dance when they were here!). Small wonder -- they're one of the few bands on the contra circuit that can make two people's playing sound like many more through the use of a small fortune in sound equipment -- that Ed controls with his feet, while playing
. I therefore picked up their self-titled debut CD and it does not disappoint. The CD does a very good job of capturing their in-person presence, and also serves to add a little something new that we would not get just by going to see them, which in my opinion is the mark of a good contra band CD. But this is not what makes it special. I have it on my iPod and somewhere in my folkie and contra playlist their versions of "High Barbory" and "Sandy Boys" popped up in close proximity to others' renditions. At that point I realized what a cool thing they'd done.
While "High Barbory" is more or less a cover of the folk song performed with delightfully shivery low tones (who'd have thought they could sing, when they don't do so terribly often at the contra dances), "Sandy Boys" is all but re-imagined -- the melody is there, but the boys have really made it their own through the use of the feedback from the sound board and other electronic sounds.
The one thing that I do wish they had done on this CD was to give us more of what they can do that they haven't necessarily done on the contra floor. While I am exceedingly pleased that their usual last song -- a rollicking mix of the tunes "Red Haired Boy," "Cluck Old Hen," and "Lightning on the Lake" -- is included on this CD, I feel like, with the exception of the one track, it almost recreates the experience of going and hearing them live too
well, to the point that I can mentally point out which songs on the CD they're playing at any given point. Hopefully we will hear more from them and they will expand their repertoire soon, as they are truly a delight to hear and dance to live. Perpetual e-Motion's website (and some music samples!) can be found at http://www.Perpetuale-Motion.com. Their next 2011 gigs are in Rochester, NY on April 7; Toronto on April 8-10; and Concord, MA on April 11. They will also be at Footfall Dance Weekend in September in High View, WV. Agree? Disagree? Want me to review another really rocking contra music source? Let me know! Check out the contact page (link at left) or leave comments here! Carry on Dancing, CS
Erratum: Edited 4/7 to correct the error that "Sandy Boys" is a traditional Southern tune, and is not Larry Unger's as originally stated.