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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1775

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Clothesline Revival: Greatest Show on Mars
by George Graham

(Paleo Music 4 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/11/2014)

Periodically there appear some quirky albums of original instrumental music, outside popular instrumental genres like jazz, fusion or even jam band music. They are more or less by definition rather eclectic and often have instrumentation that is also off the beaten path. They can range from curious combinations of world music instruments to basically a rock and roll band playing some unconventional tune or electronic music -- atmospheric or otherwise.

This week we have a new recording from a group from northern California that has been doing this for about a decade or more, Clothesline Revival, who have just released their fourth album called The Greatest Show on Mars.

Like an increasing number of such "groups" Clothesline Revival is largely the work of one man Conrad Praetzel, a former archaeologist. Clothesline Revival is shares a similarity with a group called Tangle Eye, whose CD 10 years ago, Alan Lomax' Southern Journey Remixed involved the field recordings made by folklorist Alan Lomax in the 1940s and 1950s, sampled and interwoven with new electronic-based music, though in the case of Tangle Eye, with a strong New Orleans bent.

Clothesline Revival has more or less the same modus operandi, using the Lomax field recordings plus some other archival material as the basis for many of the tracks on the new CD. The group has done this for previous albums with the exception of their last one They Came from Somewhere, which was their first album of original music. As a contrast to the approach taken by Tangle Eye, most of Clothesline Revival's added instruments are non-electronic and indeed there are acoustic instruments like banjo and mandolin featured prominently. After working with musical partner Robert Powell for most of the group's previous albums, Praetzel is pretty much on his own on The Greatest Show on Mars. He is listed as playing all the added instruments. While the samples of the field recording are present on many of the tracks, that is not the whole purpose of the CD. There is some original music that does not involve the samples. Praetzel leans toward a folk and Americana direction, but there is some techno influence. It all comes together well on the CD, though when the field recordings are not the in the limelight, the original music can tend to be thin on memorable melodies, and more like a collection of grooves. But it makes for interesting and engaging listening nonetheless.

The CD leads off with O Happy Land constructed around an Alan Lomax recording of one Bessie Jones recorded in 1961. Praetzel adds prominent slide resonator guitar underscoring the bluesy quality. <<>>

That segues rather seamlessly into March of the Cosmic Puppets, a folky, guitar-based piece that has enough quirky instrumentation that the title fits. <<>>

More contemplative in sound is one of the most memorable tracks on the album Steal Away another of the pieces constructed around a Lomax field recording, in this case made in 1942 of Turner Junior Johnson on both vocal and harmonica. <<>>

It's back to a bit of a sci-fi spacey sound for a piece called Last Train from Pluto with an interesting mix of a sort of swampy twangy rock guitar sound with a theremin conjuring the old science fiction sound tracks. <<>>

Another of the best tunes on the album is Leather Britches, creatively mixing a folk field recording, in this case of one Sidney Hemphil Carter, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959, with a rhythmic groove set up by Praetzel, including a banjo. It's quite appealing. <<>>

Using a field recording in a rather different way is a piece called A Mysterious Light a spoken word oral history of someone who claims he saw a UFO, set to a kind of light techno beat. <<>>

With a title making reference to a large mountain on Mars, Olympus Mons is an instrumental piece that instead borrows from the album's Americana musical theme. <<>>

Move Up features a field recording a lot more prominently. It's of a high quality African American Gospel group headed by one Ed McNeil recorded in 1959 in Mississippi. Praetzel adds a slide guitar and a kind loop-based rhythmic groove, and it makes for the album's most energetic track. <<>>

The Greatest Show on Mars the new CD by Clothesline Revival, now a one-person group consisting of Conrad Praetzel, is another interesting and engaging mixture of archival field recordings with original music, something the group has done on previous releases. It's not as wide-ranging as Tangle Eye did in their excellent CD from 2004, but Clothesline Revival features more of an Americana-based sound that better meshes with the field recordings. There are also a number of original tunesminus the archival material.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The juxtaposition of the field recordings and the original material is handled well, the sound is generally clean, and gimmicks are few.

I have to say that this album confused me a bit with a disconnect between the title, graphics and publicity blurb with the musical contents. Most of the music is based on traditional folk, but there is the sci-fi album title, a circus clown on the cover, and this from their PR release: "Clothesline Revival received an exclusive invitation to become the first musicians from Earth to entertain Martian colonists." I think a more appropriate sci-fi connection would be time-traveling. Nevertheless, this is one of those albums that are both highly distinctive and entertaining.

(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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