Sunday, February 06, 2005

Accordions rule!

I know the blogosphere has been all in a tizzy about the latest Big Issue. Social Security, you're thinking? Not even close. And besides, depending on who you listen to, we either need to fix it before 2018 or we can just sit back and drink beer for another 30 years before we need to worry about THAT. Ward Churchill??? Pul-eeeeze. He's SO five minutes ago and, like Sistah Souljah when Bill Clinton discovered a song by her that talks about killing white people, now is much better known than he was before--not much of a gain for anyone but them, from what I can tell. No--keep guessing . . . What to get Your Host for his birthday? Well, what else would it be? You silly people. And so, you all have until April to round up about $60 to buy me Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens, a box set of music from New Orleans. In honor of Mardi Gras (this Tuesday), NPR played some selections and interviewed the set's compiler. Sweet stuff. Ain't nuthin' fancy 'bout N'awlins music: it's just 'bout havin' you a good time. And if you can resist moving to the Meters or to any zydeco, you're just flat dead is what you are. Click on the link and have a look at the set list. There's nary a miss. And if you still wonder what this stuff sounds like, think Little Feat's "Fat Man in the Bathtub" or "Dixie Chicken"--those are pretty close.
Not all Louisiana music is accordion-based--that would be Cajun and zydeco, which come from the sawmps of the southwestern quadrant of the state. But I would like here to offer a few lines of praise on behalf of the much-maligned squeezebox. A few years ago, I saw a Far Side cartoon divided in half; the upper half showed an angel greeting new arrivals and saying, "Welcome to Heaven; here's your harp." The bottom half showed a devil greeting new arrivals and saying, "Welcome to Hell; here's your accordion." I didn't get it. Well, I sort of got it--I knew that Lawrence Welk had kinda ruined, for many people, whatever appeal the accordion might have had for my and my parents' generation, standing there in his suit and playing oh-so-politely, as though he was afraid to make anyone sweat--least of all himself. But by the time I had seen the Larson cartoon, I knew better: I had returned from having lived in Mexico for 2 years and had heard lots of good conjunto music--the sweaty, polka-like, working-class dance music from northern Mexico. I was hip to Flaco Jimenez (the most well-known recording I know his work on is Dwight Yoakum and Buck Owens' "Streets of Bakersfield"). I owned a Clifton Chenier record. In other words, I knew the accordion to be an extraordinarily expressive and propulsive instrument, in the right hands. Mr. Larson, being from the Pacific Northwest as he is, just had not had the pleasure, is all I can figure. How sad for him.
So: what's so cool about the (well-played) accordion? It literally breathes in time with the music--its breath IS the music. So, even as it's nailing down the song's melody, its slightly wheezing quality actually adds another, syncopated rhythm line to the song. It does not play so much as try to sing. It can't help it--it's in its very nature.
Anyway. Now you can stop flagellating yourselves over what to buy me.

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fearful_syzygy said...

Ooh, new features!

Anyway: I am currently listening to an excellent album by Yann Tiersen & Shannon Wright, which features an accordion on most tracks (YT being the man behind the Amélie soundtrack, in case you didn't know). Sounds a bit like PJ Harvey, if you like her.
The French are wild about accordions, and stick one on most everything they produce just to like prove that it's French or something. When Chris Cornell decided to do a French version of his single "Can't Change Me" he also stuck a squeezebox on there for added authenticity.
It can get a bit tiresome when it's just thrown in for good measure, though. The accordion works well when it is employed as a feature, rather than just hidden deep down in the mix.

John B. said...

I don't know much about French music, but I do have to say that when I play the Anouar Brahem CD I have and that accordion comes in, it does indeed signal "France" to me. It makes me want to wear a beret.
I'm not too keen on the idea of accordions as decorations, as flourishes. I admire virtuosity as much as the next guy, but in Cajun, zydeco and conjunto, my favorite moments are where the accordion carries the melody AND a good bit of the rhythm as well. It's part of the ensemble but unquestionably the motor that makes the band go.

Anonymous said...

John Lennon's first instrument was an accordian...

John B. said...

Thanks, whoever you are, for sharing that tidbit.