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Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores - The Smother Party

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Artist: Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores

Album: The Smother Party

Label: North East Indie

Review date: May. 20, 2006

Alec K. Redfearn, everyone's favorite anarchic accordionist, is a man of many interests – punk and improv, krautrock and gypsy music, prog and electronic soundscapery. In this, his fifth full-length record with the flexibly staffed Eyesores, he takes a more melodic, song-structured approach than on The Quiet Room, while retaining an air of submerged danger. The new album offers two melancholy waltzes, a smattering of skewed and minor-key East European folk tunes, one stark blues lament and a 23-minute long improvisational freak-out. It hangs tipsily together, pulled in every direction by divergent ideas, but united by a subversive passion, a giddy surreality and the sing-songy arpeggios of Redfearn's accordion.

Core members of Redfearn's musical family play their usual roles here. Margie Wienk, also of Fern Knight, puts the steadying foundation of stand-up bass under these songs. Long-time drummer, Matt McLaren adds the manic sticks-on-rims intensity to "Valse,” and pushes the prog-like "Ginger Gin/Flight of the Sims" to mad gypsy-dancer tempos. Two late-album songs – the "Litany" and "Overhang" – bear the stamp of electronic manipulator Frank Difficult, another frequent collaborator. Other contributors include Domenick Panzarella on guitar and e-bow, Olivia Geiger on violin and Ann Schattle on horn (but only in F). Many of these people have been playing together for years, and their sureness – of themselves, their instruments and each other – keeps songs like "Litany" on the right side of the precipice. The magic comes as the band flirts with meltdown but successful avoids it.

The songs mostly begin with unadorned accordion, moving in repetitive, fevered patterns. It's an odd sound, reminding us of the other, mostly joyous, simple occasions where we've heard accordions – organ grinders, circus music, weddings and polka parties – but twisting it in uneasy, aggressive directions. So when the songs begin to develop out of this framework, as in "Valse" or "Ginger Gin/Flight of the Sims,” their shadings of punk, 20th century classical and prog are jarring but not quite unexpected. It is not quite as if a polka party turned into an abstract expressionist theater piece when "Ginger Gin" takes improvisatory flight, but it is pretty close.

The Quiet Room hinted at song structure and lyricism, but The Smother Party puts these elements up front. All but three songs have words (the exceptions are "Ginger Gin,” "Litany" and "Gutterhelmet Ascending"), and vocals are mixed more prominently than on the earlier album. The singing is particularly atmospheric and beautiful on the string and oboe-embellished "Overhang," swirling in slow transparent harmonies against the muted clang of percussion. Vocals take on more of a narrative function in the Middle Eastern flavored "Choreboy and a Blowtorch" and the uneasy folk "Valse II,” telling oblique stories rather than purely supplying texture.

Most of the cuts on Smother Party are relatively self-contained and structured, diverging by their song-ness from the drone and abstraction of The Quiet Room. However, there are two very freeform cuts on this album that allow the Eyesores to cut loose. The first is "Litany," its staccato accordion and string riffs blasted through with rock-distorted guitars and, near the end, scalding blurts of jazz saxophone. The cut begins locked into a rigid riff, then roughly midway through, deconstructs its certainties into careening bursts of improvised sound. "Gutterhelmet Ascending,” named after Redfearn's two-man project with drummer Matt McLaren, is even more unpredictable, beginning with a hammering, distorted barrage of electrified guitar, then stripping down to muted accordion and snare shots. It continually builds and recedes over its 23-minute length, returning in slightly or vastly altered form, careening from rock to folk to jazz to gypsy and even incorporating a "Coke Bug"-ish jaw's harp interlude in its midst.

Smother Party is an adventurous and exciting piece of work from the Eyesores, perhaps a bit more accessible than The Quiet Room on the surface, but just as thought-provoking. Ambrose Bierce once called the accordion "an instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin." If so, in an album that balances structured compositions with slashing improvisation, Redfearn is making the most of its innate character, the harmony and the assassin.

By Jennifer Kelly

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